The key COVID-19 strategies this Thai hospital group has put in place for Omicron

In the first of our two-part interview with the Deputy CEO of Thailand’s Samitivej & BNH Group of Hospitals, we find out what strategies their hospitals have put in place to prepare for the fight against Omicron.

The recent increase in COVID-19 infections – driven by the Omicron variant – has put hospitals on alert for an expected surge in patients in the coming months.

Indeed, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is estimated that more than half of the population in Europe will likely catch Omicron by March this year.

The situation in Asia is no different – earlier this month, India recorded a seven-month high infection, Japan saw a 16-time jump in their one-day COVID-19 tally, while the Philippines tallied its highest daily number of infections (26,458) since the start of the pandemic.

In Thailand, the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases as of Jan 17 numbered 4,448 – a significant increase from the average of 2,600 daily cases that was recorded towards the end of last year.

As a result of the fresh wave of infections, most countries have put plans for a return to normalcy on the backburner.

Healthcare providers, too, like Thailand’s Samitivej & BNH Group of Hospitals, have also reactivated their COVID-19 strategy, with stringent infection control measures being put back in place to minimise the risk of a widespread outbreak.

But having battled with the virus for more than two years, most hospitals are now better prepared to face any and all challenges that the Omicron variant might pose.

Dr Surangkana Techapaitoon, Deputy CEO of Samitivej & BNH Group of Hospitals, told Hospital Management Asia (HMA): “Two years ago, when COVID-19 first hit, there was a lack of knowledge about the virus, which made it hard for hospitals to react to the situation.

“There was also a shortage of key medical supplies, like personal protective equipment (PPEs), as nobody predicted how much of an impact COVID-19 would have on the world. So the early stages of the pandemic were a time of panic for both patients and healthcare staff, and many healthcare providers had to adapt quickly in order to stabilise the situation.

“But because of the tough lessons learnt from 2020, we were better equipped to cope with the more serious and infectious Delta variant in 2021. And now, with our COVID-19 strategies having been refined and set in place, I believe we are all well prepared for the challenges that the Omicron variant might pose.”

Dr Techapaitoon explained that the COVID-19 strategy at Samitivej & BNH Group of Hospitals centres on the word ‘Safe’, with all their measures revolving around keeping both their patients, staff, and community away from harm.

This core tenet applies to almost every facet of the hospitals’ processes – from the way they clean their facilities, to their infection control measures, to even their involvement in the country’s vaccination efforts, which has seen them administer over 100,000 vaccines to the communities they serve.

Solving the bed occupancy crunch with ‘Hospitels’

One way that Samitivej & BNH Group of Hospitals keeps their patients safe is by stringently keeping those with COVID-19 separated from their non-COVID-19 patients. To that end, they usually designate an entire floor, or if needed, an entire building, solely for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

They have also collaborated with several hotels in their vicinity to provide extra rooms for the isolation and treatment of COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms – a concept that is commonly known as ‘hospitels’.

According to Dr Techapaitoon, Samitivej & BNH Group of Hospitals currently have six active hospitels – up from the one they had active before Christmas last year – which provides them with around 800 extra beds for their COVID-19 patients.

“We had closed these hospitels when things were more stable near the end of last year, but decided to activate them again after seeing an increase in the number of positive cases in the new year as a result of Omicron,” said Dr Techapaitoon, who estimates that they currently have about 75 percent occupancy rate at their hospitels.

In order to ease the workload on their healthcare staff, patietns at these hospitels are equipped with devices that allow them to test their key vitals like their oxygen levels and temperature. Telemonitoring systems are also installed so that patients are able to undergo a consultation with a doctor from the hospitels itself when needed.

“If we detect abnormal symptoms in the patient, or if their vital signs start to get worse, then we will move them to our hospital wards so that we can keep a closer eye on them,” Dr Techapaitoon added. “But with the use of telemonitoring devices at the hospitels, our frontliners are able to look after more patients, as compared to if they were warded at our hospital itself.”

Keeping processes safe

Another key component of Samitivej & BNH Group of Hospitals’ COVID-19 strategy is to ensure that their workflow processes are safe and optimised to handle the potential influx of positive cases.

This has led to the hospital group transitioning to a more fluid workflow, which helps them be agile in reacting according to the different circumstances that may arise.

Dr Techapaitoon explained: “As a result of the pandemic, we realised the importance of being able to divert resources – especially when it comes to skilled manpower – to help solve the more pressing issues that arise.

“For example, some of our clinics saw a decrease in the number of their patients during the pandemic as people were afraid of making the trip to a medical facility, for fear of contracting COVID-19. So, we redirected the manpower from these clinics to help out with our COVID-19 cases, or indeed, for any of our other clinics that may require additional help.

“By having such a fluid and adaptable workflow, we are able to ensure that our clinics are always able to meet the demands of the patients, even at short notice.”

The hospital group’s telemedicine arm, named Samitivej virtual hospital, has also played a much bigger role since the start of the pandemic.

While the Samitivej virtual hospital was first launched in 2019, its take-up rate only really shot up at the height of the pandemic, with the hospital attending to more than 200 cases remotely on a daily basis.

Management of costs during COVID-19

As a result of the pandemic, Samitivej & BNH Group of Hospital saw a drop in the number of elective surgeries, which unfortunately resulted in a drop in revenue in mid 2021, but improve in Q4 2021.

This was driven in large part due to the closure of Thai borders, which made it nigh-on impossible for fly-in foreign patients – which had made up about 20 percent of their cases pre-COVID – to travel to their hospitals for treatment.

Dr Techapaitoon revealed that at the final quarter of last year, when the COVID-19 situation had stabilised somewhat, they had begun contacting their agents from overseas to try and attract medical tourists back to their hospitals again.

The outbreak of the Omicron variant, however, has since put a stop to those efforts. Nonetheless, Dr Techapaitoon believes that they are now much better equipped to deal with the revenue loss from these medical tourists.

“We had to come up with several strategies to try and manage the costs of running the hospital during the pandemic,” Dr Techapaitoon said.

“The government does pay us for treating COVID-19 cases, but overall, our revenue dipped quite a bit due to the decrease in the number of non-COVID patients.

“So, we negotiated with our suppliers to get better prices, while also buying in larger quantities to get the bulk discount. We do this for our medicine, laboratory supplies, as well as other equipments. We also tweaked our operations and workflow to better manage the cost of our manpower.”

Part two of our interview with Dr Surangkana Techapaitoon, on the strategies the Samitivej & BNH Group of Hospitals have taken to address the manpower crunch during COVID-19, will be published next week.