One Year Later: CleanSlate Employees Reflect on Key Learnings from the COVID-19 Pandemic
Apr 5, 2021
Last March when the pandemic began to spread quickly across the U.S., CleanSlate had to make some difficult decisions to ensure we could continue to treat patients long term. We must keep the lessons of the past year top of mind to ensure we continue to meet patients where they are.
Brian Coonan, regional director of operations for CleanSlate’s Mid-Atlantic region and Arizona, remembers being in an airport as flights were being canceled and realizing things were about to change. “That felt apocalyptic,” he recalls. Shortly thereafter, he joined an all-hands call to discuss what changes were going to be needed at CleanSlate in response to COVID-19.
“We knew we had to do something, but at that point, we didn’t know what this pandemic was going to mean not only for our personal lives but also for our patients, employees, and for the company in general,” said Rachel Thompson, regional director of operations for Indiana and Kentucky. “It was a really scary moment.”
Michelle L’italien, regional director of operations for Massachusetts, recalls the extreme emotions across the company at the beginning of the pandemic. Leaders struggled to make difficult operational decisions and employees banded together to think through the best possible strategy for continuing to serve patients.
“There were a lot of tears,” she recounts. “From a medical standpoint, we had to think about all possible scenarios. Individuals with dual diagnoses were now more at risk just by leaving the house. Self-isolation made [the severity of the situation] feel real.”
Committed first and foremost to protect the safety of both our staff and patients, CleanSlate’s leaders pivoted to put a plan in place to continue to treat patients effectively given face-to-face contact was almost impossible.
“We went from our interactions being primarily in-person to quickly adopting new technologies and making sure they were vetted through legal and compliance to protect our patients and staff,” said L’italien. As expected, there was a learning curve, but employees were committed to adapting to remain easily accessible to patients.
Over just a few days, CleanSlate moved its entire in-person support center online. Support center staff relocated their offices to their homes and navigated internet and systems challenges. Staff that continued to work in the office were fitted with necessary protective equipment and protocols were implemented to maintain safety, such as a mask policy, social distancing measures, and an increased disinfecting process for high-touch surfaces. The adjustment was not without difficulties, but employees worked hard to maintain patient interaction despite the circumstances.
Stephanie Steiner, who as director of customer service oversees CleanSlate’s support center, said some of her representatives struggled with the adjustments of working from home while remaining responsive to the sudden influx of inquiries via phone and the website’s chat function. In March 2020, the call center received more than 95,000 calls – the highest single-month call volume CleanSlate has experienced.
Stay-at-home orders completely changed how CleanSlate patients received treatment and it was unclear when they would be able to be seen in person again. It was clear, however, that mental health challenges and the opioid epidemic were not going away. Folks needed help now more than ever.
“Our centers went from an average of 3 to 5% telemedicine to about 80% in 72 hours,” recalls CleanSlate Chief Operating Officer Adam McPhee. By the end of March, the number of telemedicine-enabled centers rose to 95%. Suddenly, providers and patients were forced to learn a new system to stay connected. Not all patients had regular access to the internet or phones, so providers often extended hours or worked around the clock to meet patient needs.
“We believe this dedication and the changes implemented within the first few days of the pandemic were what led us to maintain access to care for patients through the third quarter of 2020,” says McPhee.
In the face of the pandemic, CleanSlate employees did what the rest of the country did – made the best of a difficult situation and continued to help patients as best they could. Now that things are shifting to various states of reopening, the team is optimistic about what comes next.
“I think what we learned throughout all of this has made us a stronger and better organization,” says Thompson. “We met people where they were, and we were able to pivot quickly and get everyone on board [with telemedicine]. Everyone was dedicated to putting the patients’ needs first. It wasn’t always pretty and we probably made a few missteps along the way, but we got through it and retained our patients because people’s lives were at stake. We did what we needed to do.”
Through it all, CleanSlate’s employees banded together to take care of patients, each other, and the communities we serve across the country. We learned that it’s important to act quickly in times of need and to have no shame in asking for help when you need it. The pandemic may have disrupted our routines but it will not disrupt the progress we have made in fighting addiction and helping patients achieve the lives they want and deserve.