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How AAHA accreditation helped some hospitals cope with COVID

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In veterinary practices, disaster preparedness tends to focus on floods, fires, and earthquakes. The pandemic, however, is wholly different, demanding not only a fast but also a nimble response, with the ability to pivot with every new recommendation. How, NEWStat wondered, have AAHA-accredited hospitals been coping—and did their AAHA membership help them negotiate overwhelming and unpredictable change?

“One day we’re doing curbside, the next day some people can come in. Everything is changing so fast,” says Susan Driever, practice manager at AAHA-accredited Animal Hospital Highway 6 in Sugarland, Texas.

But AAHA accreditation, she says, has helped them stay one step ahead. “We already have [AAHA] standards of operations in place, so we’re not having to create new procedures. We’re just tweaking what we already have,” she says. “[Our team members are] rock stars under pressure. They know the standards we operate by, and they’re not going to let those standards slip just because our procedures are changing.”

Jennifer DiTrapani, DVM, owner of AAHA-accredited Morningside Animal Hospital in Jensen Beach, Florida, has been grateful for AAHA’s COVID-19 information and resource pages, as well as less tangible resources such as the tips and advice on coping with the new normal from her AAHA colleagues on the AAHA-Accredited Members Facebook page. And she says that AAHA’s learning programs came in handy during downtime in the early days, when there was such a thing as downtime. Staff used the idle hours to keep up with their CE, taking courses in CPR and radiology safety.

“Our curbside service remains the same high standard it was before COVID,” DiTrapani says, “and thanks to our AAHA accreditation, we were able to use all of those AAHA resources to keep up those high standards despite stress and adversity.”

Israel Thompson is the professional development lead at Saint Francis Veterinary Center in Woolrich, New Jersey, the 2019 AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year. The hospital has been busier in the past few months than any time in its 25-year history as other practices close temporarily due to exposures and/or outbreaks among staff. AAHA accreditation, Thompson says, has helped Saint Francis keep up.

“Being an AAHA-accredited facility for as long as we have, our staff is very confident in their skills and their abilities from a technical side. So when the pandemic hit, we didn’t have to worry about ‘How are we going to do medicine?’ We were able to shift our focus to ‘How are we going to service the client?’”

Accreditation also meant Saint Francis was able to leverage the trust it’s built in the community, where it has always talked up AAHA and featured their accreditation in their marketing. “It gave our clients the confidence to trust our ability to make the right decisions on how to handle ourselves and stay open.”

He admits that staff was expecting some pushback on the transition to curbside service, but they never received any. “We had a lot of people who loved it. To the point that, when we do open our doors again to let clients in the building, I guarantee you we’re going to have clients who are going to want to do curbside for the rest of their lives.”

One of the best benefits of accreditation, Thompson points out, is the member network: “We’ve got a lot of brains we can pick.” He says Saint Francis staff has been reaching out via social media to ask other accredited hospitals how they’re handling pandemic procedures. “We’re all trading ideas on what works and what doesn’t work, [and] trying to tackle this problem as a group.”

Michelle Mayers, VMD, owner of Hillcrest Animal Hospital in Simpsonville, South Carolina, went through reaccreditation during the early part of the pandemic and found she got as much information and support out of the virtual experience as she did an in-person evaluation. “I thoroughly enjoyed it,” she says.

Coping with the pandemic, however, has been a challenge—so it was especially good to get input and support during the reaccreditation process and to connect with AAHA colleagues. “We have these AAHA Facebook groups and practice owner groups, which is really nice because there’s a lot of camaraderie across the country,” she says. “It’s always good to compare and contrast with others who are doing the same things you are.”

For Mayers, keeping Hillcrest and her community safe during the pandemic is personal: Her mother died of COVID-19 in early April. Perhaps even more so than most, Mayers was extremely cautious about choosing to remain open and implementing curbside operations.

“It was very important,” she says, “to make these changes and make sure that everybody was safe.” Accreditation gave her a solid foundation to do so. “You can’t just flip a switch.”

Photo credits: (Left to right) photo by Marissa Chang, photo courtesy of the Animal Hospital at Southwood, ©AAHA/Robin Taylor