The first emails came in early March, warning UMSL campus-wide that travel arrangements were either cancelled or postponed. Things escalated quickly; notices began to come multiple times a day from UM System, the media, and campus leaders. COVID-19 went from a vague concept to a global pandemic. Across campuses, UM System effectively shut down as we began to make the transitions to working and learning from home.

But how does a Patient Care Clinic operate, when there are no patients to care for?

There are always patients in need of care, and Vinita Henry, OD, Director of Clinical Operations, and Sallie Wallis, Center Manager, very quickly began to work out a patient-focused plan. The goal: to keep our faculty, staff, and students feeling safe, and our patients knowing that we were available throughout the pandemic.

From establishing telehealth services for emergency cases, to preparing the clinic for the eventual re-opening, our leaders had their work cut out for them. PCC staff remained alert to the changes, preparing to completely rework schedules, maintain billing and revenue, and keep patient communications open. Faculty banded together to overhaul labs and classes, and the clinic began to take on a new shape to support our community. 

Through weekly Zoom meetings and daily communication, the Clinic staff were able to be a resource for everything from ordering replacement eyeglasses and contact lenses, to triaging eyeglasses repairs and extending trial lenses. “What we really tried to do, is to be a resource to [our patients].  We tried to meet people where they were at; if we couldn’t say, ‘yes,’ we tried to be good listeners and to be empathetic,” said Wallis. “In many cases, we grew in our ability to reach our patients.”

The billing staff were able to focus on reviewing outstanding claims to sustain and generate clinic revenue, while compliance worked to learn and to communicate the rapidly-changing HIPAA guidelines with the inclusions of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and technology-based patient care. 

With the reopening of the PCC, new measures were put in place to protect each person. Per Dr. Henry, “A clinic task force came together to craft the reopening plan. UMSL Administration, UM General Counsel, and St. Louis County Public Health all reviewed and/or approved our reopening plan.” There was a “thorough disinfection of the entire building. The lobby was altered to provide new patient flow and to prevent lingering. Breath shields for phoropters and slit lamps were made and installed, and a plexiglass barrier was installed at the front desk. Furniture was redistributed, patient flow shifted, and hand sanitizer units were added.”

An entirely new check-in process was put together, to allow for as much social distancing as possible: Wallis explained, “Patients are told what to expect as they make the appointment, and are also contacted the day before the appointment to reiterate the information and for intake questions. A student meets the patient in the parking lot to pre-screen them before they enter the PCC; the front doors remain locked, and we instruct the patient to have any required information with them in hand (ID/insurance cards). We’ve reduced the number of forms and papers that the patients and the staff have to handle. In the dispensary, the staff pulls the frames for the patient, and all frames are sanitized before going back out on the displays. The fewer things that are being touched, the better!”

Working remotely had its challenges, but through it all, the faculty and staff stayed in contact. “We have a really wonderful staff, and they were resources for each other,” said Wallis. The biggest questions that were constantly asked: “Are we doing enough?” and “Are we being realistic?”  It has been challenging, but the compliments of our patients make everything worth it. A comment card recently stated, “I have been to several medical venues the past 2 weeks.  I wanted to tell you that UMSL is right up there at the top!  As a patient, I was VERY impressed with the conditions there yesterday.  Of course the professionalism and warm atmosphere created by those employed there are always to be commended!”

While those are warm words to hear, we know that they came with a tremendous amount of hard work from every department in the College of Optometry. We are grateful to every faculty, staff, and student member who works together every day to put the “Care” into Patient Care Center, and we are thankful to be back at doing what we do best: Helping our patients to see their very best!

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