HACKENSACK MERIDIAN HEALTH TREATED MORE COVID-19 PATIENTS IN THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY THAN ANY OTHER HOSPITAL SYSTEM; NOW THEY ARE USING THE LESSONS LEARNED TO MAKE THEIR NETWORK EVEN STRONGER
BY JESSICA JONES-GORMAN • PHOTOS BY AMESSE PHOTOGRAPHY
When Dr. Daniel Varga joined Hackensack Meridian Health in the new role of chief physician executive in February of 2020, he never expected a global pandemic would define the first year of his tenure.
Treating more COVID19 patients in the state of New Jersey than any other hospital system, his new employer became responsible for the care of more than 21,000 affected patients in a 12-month time span. But Dr. Varga stepped into the role seamlessly, exerting unparalleled expertise in his field and placing the HMH network at the forefront of COVID care.
“We focused on three or four major areas in our overall COVID response,” Dr. Varga noted, detailing how the network placed great importance on keeping clinical spaces available to the community while still caring for a growing population of COVID patients throughout three different surges of the virus.
“HMH went to great lengths to ensure there was continually a strong clinical workforce that was appropriately equipped with the right personal protective equipment,” continued Dr. Varga. “And the hospital system was aggressively involved in working with the community helping New Jersey residents understand COVID, partnering with the state and department of health, and acting as a vehicle of direct interaction with the public.”
For Dr. Varga, who joined the staff at HMH from Texas Health Resources, where he served as senior executive vice president and chief clinical officer with joint accountability in all clinical operations, the prospect of COVID culpability was challenging but manageable.
“Each surge presented new problems and issues but we steadily managed those challenges,” he said. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree in biology and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Kentucky, Dr. Varga attended medical school at the University of Louisville. Prior to his leadership roles at Texas Health Resources and HMH, he worked as chief clinical officer of Kentucky One Health, and as chief medical officer at St. Joseph’s Health System, SSM Health Care and Norton Healthcare. Widely published in his field, his honors include the Every Moment Matters Award from the Presbyterian Health Services Foundation. He previously served as president of the Kentucky Medical Association and as chair of the Healthcare Associated Infections Project of the National Quality Forum, and he currently co-chairs the Physician Alignment Forum of the Leadership Institute all experiences that assisted him in his efforts to battle this virus.
“The staff and administration of this healthcare network continually looked for ways to innovate during this trying time,” said Dr. Varga. “Our Center for Discovery and Innovation produced one of the first publicly available tests for identifying COVID and was actively involved with the department of health in clinical trials for the vaccines. This has been a challenging 18 months but I can confidently say that Hackensack Meridian Health properly managed every aspect of COVID care.”
An early adopter of the vaccine mandate, HMH required that all 36,000 of their team members and each one of their 7,000 physicians be vaccinated months before the state of New Jersey required it.
“Any medical professional using our facilities is required to be vaccinated,” he said. “There are some medical and religious exemptions, but they are few, so all of our patients can rest assured that anyone caring for them on this property is vaccinated from the virus.”
“Each surge presented new problems and issues but we steadily managed those challenges.”
This is important for patients who are still hesitant about returning to their physician’s offices.
“Unfortunately many patients have forfeited care of chronic conditions out of fear of COVID,” said Dr. Varga. “But with a fully vaccinated workforce and proper aggregation of COVID positive patients, that is not an issue at HMH. Everyone admitted to our hospitals is tested upon arrival and placed accordingly.”
The network’s ambulatory care footprint has also vastly expanded to accommodate the needs of all patients in the state.
“We have hundreds of sites of care outside of the hospital where patients can receive imaging services, physical or occupational therapy, and many other urgent care procedures without having to enter a hospital setting,” said Dr. Varga. “It’s been wonderful to have that kind of broad access model during this time, and we only hope to build upon our ambulatory care in the future.”
In fact, the network will soon be opening a cluster of Hackensack Meridian Health & Wellness Centers, the first of which will launch in Eatontown in the coming months. According to Dr. Varga, it’s that type of widespread care that HMH is currently focused on providing, properly preparing for any future outbreaks.
“We’ve learned important lessons from each wave of this virus,” explained Dr. Varga. “Our objective for the future is to maintain full access of care for those with chronic illness and continue to reach out to the community, encouraging residents to stay on top of their screenings and other tests. We’re also identifying all of the things we did during COVID that were innovative and transformational and are making those part and parcel of our culture going forward. Yes, this pandemic was a challenging time for healthcare workers all over the world. But at Hackensack Meridian Health we are using the lessons learned to make our network stronger.”
Hackensack Meridian Health