Answering the call: Access Center, regional clinics respond to patient needs during Harvey

Oct 2, 2017, 11:54 AM by Christopher Smith Gonzalez
Emma Beard, a patient access specialist, answered calls throughout the storm at the League City Campus.
As a major health care provider that residents of Southeast Texas depend on for primary and specialty care, UTMB works hard to safely maintain clinical operations during any adverse event. Hurricane Harvey was no exception.

During the storm, patient calls to the UTMB Access Center never stopped. Patients wanted to know if their upcoming appointment would be rescheduled, if they could get medication refilled, if elective surgeries were being canceled and when clinics would reopen.

Access Center employees who worked tirelessly during Harvey (L-R) Genevieve Coleman, patient access specialist; Kaylin Barlow, nurse supervisor; and Emma Beard.As the effects of Harvey wore on during the final week of August, employees of the Access Center—which was relocated from the Clear Lake Center building to the League City Campus and into a makeshift call center on the Galveston Campus—took thousands of calls. In fact, call volumes were higher than normal, with the Access Center responding to more than 2,800 calls a day during the storm. They reassured callers and helped patients find the answers they needed as weather conditions changed.

And amidst the historic flooding, UTMB providers and staff did their best to reopen clinics across Southeast Texas.

UTMB has 90 clinics across 50 locations. The complex job of determining which clinics could be safely reopened fell on the shoulders of Ann O’Connell, vice president of ambulatory operations, and Dr. Rex McCallum, vice president and chief physician executive and associate dean for clinical affairs.

“There is a balancing act between making ourselves available to our patients and ensuring the safety of our providers, staff and patients,” McCallum said.

O’Connell said as the storm continued and affected different regions across Texas, it was a matter of strategic decision-making as to which clinics could safely reopen.

"When we have a big weather event, we begin to think about how long it has been since our patients have been able to receive care,” O’Connell said. “During the storm, several days went by when we knew patients couldn’t get to their providers to seek care if they needed it.”

This included cancer patients needing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, expectant mothers needing prenatal care and patients with chronic diseases needing follow-up care, among many other needs. So beginning on Monday, Aug. 28, clinics that could be safely reopened, did so.

“The first priority was to assess which clinics we could safely reopen and adequately staff each day,” O’Connell said. “Second priority was to make urgent care and primary care services available as soon as possible, since patients in some areas had been without access to care for several days. It was also important to open the Regional Maternal Child Health Program (RMCHP) clinics and WIC clinics as they serve some of the most vulnerable women and children in the state.”

During the weeklong period when UTMB was on emergency status, conditions across Southeast Texas changed—sometimes quickly. It took a lot of flexibility and dedication from available providers and staff to safely reopen the clinics and urgent care centers and to keep the Access Center operational 24/7, O’Connell added.

Now, about a month after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, all but two of UTMB’s 50 clinic locations have reopened. The Texas City Primary and Specialty Care Clinic and the RMCHP Dickinson Clinic are still closed while repairs continue.

“Things on the whole worked well and our providers and staff were ready and willing to work when it was safe to do so,” McCallum said. “I was proud of our staff, proud of our faculty and proud of our organization.”