Dr. Lydia Watson on MidMichigan Health welcoming patients back with added safety measures

Many of us have watched local and national news with COVID-19 cases on the rise and thought, ‘Is it safe to go to the hospital right now?’ or ‘Should I postpone my routine checkup?’, and with valid concern.

We sat down with Lydia Watson, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer at MidMichigan Health, to learn about how our local health system has returned to work in a post-COVID environment and what’s been done to keep everyone safe.

The new Orchard Building at MidMichigan Health in Midland.

Preparing for a care in a post COVID-19 environment

Over the last several months, COVID-19 has changed the way we live, work and even the way we consider medical care, as hospitals around the country paused non-essential procedures to combat the virus and allow for supply allocations.

“Fortunately, we are at a point where we have experienced a continued and steady decrease in COVID-19 cases within our health system, we have the appropriate allocation of PPE and our testing capability has expanded,” says Watson. “With those three factors together, we know it’s safe and feasible to begin reopening services and start welcoming patients back to our hospitals and provider offices.”

“Over the last several weeks we have started to ease back into scheduling procedures and opening up other services,” says Watson. “The effort was a gradual rolling re-entry that has been supported by many of our teams, thoroughly researched and done in a way that puts patient, provider and employee safety first.”

MidMichigan Health started to resume performing scheduled procedures in early May after careful review and planning. Dr. Watson also noted some of the initial limitations in services were to provide for the overall shortage of PPE and testing supplies nationally and within the state.

Lydia Watson, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer at MidMichigan Health.

“Originally, we needed to comply with Governor Whitmer’s orders to postpone nonessential procedures to allow for the allocation of PPE and testing equipment throughout the medical system collectively,” says Watson. “We're starting to ramp back up in other areas including diagnostic testing, radiology services, and general surgery.”

“Now that we know more about the virus and the appropriate PPE allocations are in place, we’ve put together a plan with the help of our physicians and providers,” says Watson. “We’ve asked each physician to sit down with their lists of patients and rescheduled procedures and plan for the surgeries that they feel are essential to the physical health and wellbeing of each patient.”

With those tools in place, each physician is making the final call for their patients, and MidMichigan Health as a hospital system had taken into consideration the needs of each patient as well as procedures that have been postponed the longest.

“And of course, we have had some new patients come in the interim as well, so we are taking all those factors into account,” she says.

As for safety protocols and processes for rescheduling procedures, a number of efforts have been put in place.

“We are asking those who deferred procedures to call and reschedule, and we are having our providers and their offices reaching out to patients as well to get back on the schedule,” says Watson. “So, we’re working on it from both angles, as it can sometimes can take a bit more time to reach people.”

"Remember, we're experts in preventing the spread of infection. We are vigilant and focused on maintaining a safe environment in all of our facilities for both you and our staff," says Watson.

Providing both safety and options for patients’ return

After several months into COVID-19 operations, MidMichigan Health has several processes in place to aid in screening and separating patients.

“First and foremost, we are continuing to reinforce that if a person suspects they may have COVID-19, the first thing they should do is call their primary care physician,” says Watson. “We know more about the virus than we did a few months ago, so not only are we screening patients for cough, shortness of breath and fever, but we're also now asking questions about chills, repeated shaking with muscle pain, headache, sore throat and a new loss of taste or smell, as these symptoms have been associated with COVID-19.”

From there, the physician determines whether patients need to go to one of the MidMichigan Health testing centers to have a test or whether their symptoms are severe enough that they need to go to the emergency room or an urgent care facility.

“In the case that someone doesn’t have a primary care provider, we're providing an additional option to call the Virtual Center Tele Hub to be screened over the phone,” says Watson.

To ease the possible stress of going to the hospital or a medical facility, MidMichigan Health is providing telemedicine options for patients.

“When you call your primary care physician’s office, one of the first things that they're going to ask you is, ‘Would you like to come in the office to be seen or would you be more comfortable scheduling a virtual visit with your provider?’ and we’ve found it has been helpful to give patients that option,” says Watson.

MidMichigan Health’s virtual visits are just like in-person appointments, except patients get a either a text or an email five to ten minutes before the appointment with a link to be connected to their provider.

"We understand that the last few months have been uncertain, but we assure you we are ready to welcome you back to our facilities and we promise to keep you safe while treating your healthcare needs,” says Watson.

Advanced screening and separation
Once a patient is in the hospital or care facility, detailed foresight and caution has been taken to make sure they remain safe.

MidMichigan Health requires everyone entering a facility to wear a mask. If they don’t have one, the hospital will provide one for them. All staff and medical professionals wear masks at all times as well.

As the staff has returned to normal operations, processes have been put in place to keep patients and visitors screened and the number of visitors has been limited to one per critical patient or minor, unless it is a doula involved in a birth, then it is two. Protocols for COVID-19 positive patents are different for those without the virus.

“Everyone that comes into any of our facilities, is screened for COVID-19 symptoms and if you screen positive, we deal with that differently than if you screen negative,” says Watson.

“Let’s take an example of a patient who comes into the emergency room with acute appendicitis and will need to undergo an operation. We are pre-op testing patients (when time permits) to make sure they don’t have COVID-19 before surgery,” says Watson. “Once we have your results back, which typically take anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes, we know how to best protect you and the staff with PPE and other special precautions.”

MidMichigan Health has resumed normal operations and adapted to keep patient safety top of mind.

“For patients with acute medical issues, we are screening them to make sure wherever they go next is safe,” says Watson. “We have heard and seen many patients who deferred coming in for treatment or in an emergency because they were afraid of the virus. We urge patients not to do that, as it can result in a much worse prognosis for their condition.”

“We’ve configured the hospital to keep patients with COVID separate from those who do not have the virus with designated COVID and non-COVID areas,” says Watson. “For spouses, parents or family that may be with a patient before or during surgery, we have made a special waiting room that has been set up to provide for social distancing in the cases where a loved one is waiting in the waiting room.”

“For patients throughout the hospital, in the emergency room, urgent care or office visits, we have a special disinfecting and sanitizing process we go through with comprehensive cleaning protocols, to make sure that each room is clean for the next patient that comes in, each and every time,” says Watson.

Advising patients, Watson says you are your own best advocate and urges those to act and call their primary care provider if even the smallest thing feels off.

“We are in allergy season right now, but you know your body best. If you feel like you're exhibiting signs and symptoms that are different than what you normally experience with allergies, you should contact your health care provider, just to make sure,” says Watson. “We understand that the last few months have been uncertain, but we assure you we are ready to welcome you back to our facilities and we promise to keep you safe while treating your healthcare needs,” says Watson. “And remember, we're experts in preventing the spread of infection. We are vigilant and focused on maintaining a safe environment in all of our facilities for both you and our staff.”

MidMichigan Virtual Telehub Clinic information
  • MidMichigan Health recommends that concerned community members continue to utilize our Virtual Clinic (Telehub) for screening and referral as appropriate.
  • The MidMichigan Virtual Telehub Clinic can be reached at (888) 591-0500, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Individuals do not need to have a MidMichigan Health provider to use the Clinic.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.