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Challenges confront new Akron Children’s Hospital chief

The new chief executive at Akron Children’s Hospital is taking the reins at an extraordinary time in health care — providers across the board are trying to strike a balance between high-quality care in a cost-effective manner all the while grappling with a labor shortage and other problems caused by the pandemic. The No. 1 challenge is staffing, said Christopher Gessner, who is less than a week into the new role. Others at or near the top of the list include COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among patients and employees and the shifting needs of health care. “We are definitely experiencing the same type of staffing shortages that all hospitals are,” Gessner said last week on a call with media from across northeast Ohio. “The pandemic has turned the labor market upside down, and we felt it hard in health care. I would say we are spending half our time thinking about new ways to deliver care, ways to invest in our staff so we can more efficiently recruit and retain … ” The workforce crisis, he said, is a situation that won’t blow away soon. “So I think health care leaders are going to be challenged to think about different ways about staffing and using technology and remote monitoring and so forth to make our staff more efficient and productive so we can manage the care needs that are coming our way,” Gessner, president / CEO, said. At Akron Children’s, part of the solution to the shortage is focusing on retention, keeping the longtime employees and listening to and meeting their needs. That could include pay and hybrid work models, he said. Gessner, whose first day was Monday, grew up in Ligonier, Pa., southeast of Pittsburgh. He comes from from UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, where he was president / CEO going back to 2019, to succeed former president / CEO Grace Wakulchik, who retired with a 40-year career in health care. She was in the role since 2018. The system has a tremendous presence in the Mahoning Valley, most notably its Beeghly campus in Boardman. VACCINES Akron Children’s does not have a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in place but soon will roll out a policy that requires employees who choose against getting the vaccine to be tested at least once per week, Gessner said. He called it a “very reasonable approach” but strongly encourages all of the system’s employees to get the vaccine. “We’re a place where children come who are sick and many of them are immunocompromised, and if for some reason, God forbid, that a child who is immunocompromised, or an adult, gets the virus, it can be very, very problematic,” Gessner said. “I think we are held to a higher standard as health care providers to try to get as many of our people vaccinated, and if not, we have to do whatever we can to assure people feel safe to come to Akron Children’s Hospital for their care.” For administering vaccines to adolescents and teens, Akron Children’s is doing about 2,000 per month and overall has given the vaccine to about 15,000. Should the vaccine be OK’d for kids 5 to 11, the system will have an active role in getting the vaccine to that age group, too. It offers the vaccine at both of its hospital campuses — Akron and Boardman — at pediatric offices within the system and has a presence in several school districts in the region, “so we’ll be in a good position to provide great access to those vaccines,” Gessner said. The son of a pediatrician, Gessner said he believes the vaccine is safe and effective and although children might not become as ill if they contract the virus, they still can pass it on to others. “I think it’s part of our duty here at Children’s to help parents understand the safety and efficacy of this and the importance of getting this vaccine,” he said. VALLEY Gessner said he hasn’t been on the job long enough yet to have a good feel on what’s in store for the future of Akron Children’s in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties, but he plans to visit the area this week. Akron Children’s Mahoning Valley in Boardman over the next 12 to 15 months will undergo a substantial improvement with the addition of a new $31 million emergency department. The new facility will be more than triple the size of the existing department and increase the number of treatment rooms by six to 23. In 2019, the system invested $2.3 million to expand its youth behavioral health program at the Beeghly campus. During the pandemic, the need for behavioral health services has grown among kids, adolescents and teens — their routines and lives were thrown out of whack, they were pulled out of school and activities, kept from seeing their friends and family and those who returned to school have to wear masks and social distance. Gessner said one of his priorities is integrating behavioral health care and physical health care. It was something that was done during his nearly 20 years in administrative roles, including president from 2008 to 2019, at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “It just made a tremendous difference in the lives of families, the physicians felt supported, the patients felt supported, parents like it,” Gessner said. “At least everywhere I have been, we’ve been integrating behavioral health care and physical care through all different services. “So I’m a big believer that mental health professionals, behavioral health professionals and clinicians in the medical world working together as a team produces the best outcome, and I’m very excited to see that commitment here in Akron as well,” Gessner said. rselak@tribtoday.com

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