Because of COVID, our hospitals are prepared for whatever public health crisis comes our way

By Mike Denney, Vice President, Real Estate Strategy & Operations, Puget Sound Region, Providence Swedish, Seattle
Stylized illustration of software that helps hospital administrators track availability of beds, staff, and other resources

In late January 2020, Washington State confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the U.S. By the first week of April, the virus had claimed the lives of more than 270 people in Kings County, and Seattle had become the epicenter of the nation’s first coronavirus outbreak.

As the operator of five hospitals in the metropolitan area at the time, we at Swedish Health Services found ourselves face-to-face with a public health crisis unlike anything we could have imagined. The highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus was fast-moving, unpredictable, and insidious. “Unprecedented” is the word we all used back then; I know we’re all tired of that term today, but honestly, it’s still the best word to describe that singularly chaotic moment. We weren’t just experiencing a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic; we were at the heart of it.

We knew we had to prepare for surges—extraordinarily large numbers of COVID-positive patients in need of medical care all at the same time—so it couldn’t just be business as usual. We had to have a better handle on how many beds were available across our network of hospitals at any given minute (literally, beds were filling up that quickly). We also had to know how many rooms needed to be retrofitted with special medical equipment, like negative-pressure HVAC systems that minimize the risk of airborne viral spread. In those early days, we were printing out floor plans and facility diagrams every morning and pinning them on bulletin boards in our COVID command center. Our administrative staff would then manually mark them up as the day went on to map out patient bed availability. It was a very slow, painstaking process, but it’s what we had to do.

We knew we had to prepare for surges—extraordinarily large numbers of COVID-positive patients in need of medical care all at the same time—so it couldn’t just be business as usual.
A Better Way

At the height of COVID, with every minute considered a life or death opportunity, I was relieved when our longtime partners at Perkins&Will offered to help. They said they could create a custom digital tool that would automate our process and allow for bed-mapping in real time. They promised to deliver it to us within a few days, too. And that’s just what they did.

Perkins&Will’s team of in-house coders and programmers, known as i/o, built a prototypical tool that tracked and visualized our hospital system data. We called it “Healthformer.” With a simple click, this web-based app allowed us to toggle between the floors of each of our five hospitals and see—within seconds—our patient capacity at any given time. We knew which beds were full and which were available, and which units were equipped with medical support systems like suction and filtered air. This meant we could efficiently and more accurately assign the right number of care staff to treat the growing number of COVID-19 patients coming through our doors.

With a few clicks, administrators could instantly see where the hospital had room and resources to care for the day’s surge of COVID-positive patients, and then staff those units accordingly.
Shared Preparedness

As the virus tore through the country, we knew other systems could benefit from the tool, too. So we shared Healthformer with the entire Providence healthcare system, which includes nearly 60 hospitals in Alaska, Montana, Oregon, Northern California, Southern California, and Washington. We also shared it with hospitals in other regions of the U.S.

By April 2022, over 395,000 people had been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus in King County alone, and more than 11,500 had been hospitalized. Healthformer really helped us deliver the best care possible, as efficiently as possible, during COVID’s most trying moments. We hope it was as useful to the other healthcare systems as it was to us.

Swedish merged with Providence in March 2022. We’re now known collectively as Providence Swedish, and we operate eight hospitals and more than 200 clinics in the western U.S.. As we continue to evaluate our combined technological needs for the future, we all agree that Healthformer was a COVID game-changer for us at precisely the moment we needed it. Today, we feel wiser, stronger, and more prepared than ever to tackle the next major public health challenge—whatever it may be.

We all agree that Healthformer was a COVID gamechanger for us at precisely the moment we needed it.