Advice for employers from an ER doc, fighter pilot, 2-star general and OhioHealth CEO: Trust science

Katy Smith
Columbus CEO
Dr. Steve Markovich, CEO of OhioHealth, filming one of his regular updates for staff during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

So many of us thought we had left COVID behind. We went back to work. We had parties, ate in crowded restaurants, packed into jubilant bars. On June 2, I took a photo of a group of us out at happy hour—all vaccinated—sheepishly beaming in disbelief that we were together again, unmasked.

On Aug. 18, I attended the Columbus Chamber’s first in-person gathering since COVID ushered in the era of the virtual event. It was a timely agenda: Colleen Marshall in conversation with OhioHealth CEO Steve Markovich about his incredible accomplishments—he is an Air Force fighter pilot who has done tours in Iraq, a two-star general and a medical doctor—and about the incredible 18 months we have just lived through.

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Markovich, with his military training, laid out the scenario for us immediately. Cases of COVID-19 are at levels not seen since December 2020 (when I barely left the house). At the time of the event, OhioHealth had between 160 and 200 COVID patients in its hospitals, he told us.

Then, he went to strategy and weapons: “All we have right now are masks, social distancing and the vaccine,” he says.

His mission? Keep his employees alive and healthy, so they can keep all of us alive and healthy, to the extent that we let them. The workforce at OhioHealth—and undoubtedly everywhere in healthcare—is exhausted. Care providers there saw patient deaths increase 500 percent to 600 percent, Markovich said. People started to see their loved ones fall ill. And four OhioHealth employees died from COVID.

What does Markovich, who earned an MBA from Wright State University while he was waiting around for his Air Force pilot training to commence, advise employers to do to support their teams?

“First, you got to have a great leadership team,” he says. “If you’re trying to get everybody engaged, you’ve got to have constant communication. You’ve got to lean on your frontline managers to work with your people.” When data being regularly collected by OhioHealth showed the frontline leadership team was getting burned out, they were offered $250 extra per week to stay home and rest.

And to support staff systemwide, the organization created an employee resiliency team charged with making sure people were getting the support they needed to stay healthy.

As revenue plunged with elective surgeries canceled and people staying away from hospitals in general, associates were assured no one would be laid off. Bonuses were tripled. Funds from the government paid the bills, Markovich said.

This month, the health system joined Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in requiring employees to get COVID vaccinations. Mount Carmel Health System announced its requirement in July.

Isn’t that perceived as a bullying tactic by employers, Marshall asked Markovich?

“Every employer has to balance that against their workforce needs,” he says. “And I’ll tell you our story. We were watching the clinical numbers and when the curve shifted, that’s when I made the decision that we needed to change the rules around the health system and require employees to get vaccinated. And that’s kind of a misnomer—we’re treating it essentially the same way as the flu. You have to get immunized by Dec. 1, or you have to get tested every week. So it’s not a guarantee you’re fired.

“We don’t want to make this a judgmental situation or a punitive situation. There are a number of reasons people fail to vaccinate, their religious or cultural benefits. The goal is to do a better job of informing everyone, to get as many people as possible. The goal isn’t to say, if you’re not vaccinated, you lose your job. If we get to that situation where people are losing their jobs, we all lose.”