Answering the Call at Summa Health’s Residency Program

As emergency medicine physicians, we have more or less self-selected careers in which we “answer the call” when we are needed. Even so, this was not the kind of call I was expecting while on winter vacation with my family and friends.

In the days just after Christmas this past December, I was in Hocking Hills with my wife and two kids, as well as some close friends who had decided to join us. It is a great place to get away from the bustle of city life, sit in hot tubs, enjoy nature, and talk about life. Cell service is spotty there, which of course is the way everyone prefers it. Sometimes you get calls, sometimes not. It just depends.

Well, the stars aligned and I got the call. It was my CEO, Dr. Dominic Bagnoli, calling to tell me I might be needed. By now many ER physicians are aware, especially those in the academic community, what happened: negotiations on a contract extension between Summa Health and its long-standing emergency medicine group broke down, and USACS was called in at the last minute to take over staffing and management of five emergency departments in the Akron area.

One of those departments, Summa Akron City Hospital, was the primary training spot for a well-respected residency program. Dominic was calling me for two reasons. One, I currently do most of my clinical work at a residency program in Ohio, so I know academic practice environments well. And two, because I used to be a “Firefighter,” part of a group of traveling physicians our group uses to cover shifts throughout the country when needed. I am very used walking into hospitals for the first time, meeting staff, and using new systems. It was December 29th, and at that time Dominic told me he still thought Summa would reach an agreement with their existing group – but if they didn’t, we needed to be prepared.

My job as a Firefighter had taken me to 20 different hospitals in my career; this would be my 21st.

This wasn’t the first time I’d gotten that kind of call from him. I’ve always loved pulling together as a team, so it’s often been the case in the past that I help out whenever and wherever needed. Like I said, us emergency physicians tend to self-select for that trait. Still, over the past three weeks I can’t help but think how the response to this unprecedented situation may have been different at another company.

When you’re a resident looking for the place to start your career you naturally gravitate toward apples to apples comparisons about salaries, signing bonuses, and the like. What’s harder to gauge is whether you are truly going to work for a team. The tell-tale sign is to watch what happens when suddenly a bunch of shifts need to be picked up. Perhaps someone has had a family emergency or got injured, and their next three shifts unexpectedly need covering. That email goes out asking for volunteers: do you immediately see a flurry of responses from colleagues willing to move things around and help out? Or, is there a long, uncomfortable silence, where no one replies at all, until the director has to start assigning people whether they like it or not?

What happened at Summa was like a massive version of that same situation. With little more than two days notice, my group needed to cover shifts at five emergency departments, including one with a residency. Within 48 hours, 75 of my colleagues, myself included, had responded that we were available to go take care of patients at the new locations.

When I showed up on January 1 to work my first shift in Akron it was obviously a stressful situation. There were no previous physicians to orient us and do all the typical things I was used to in my previous turns as a Firefighter. Plus, the hospital was on down time because we hadn’t gone through the IT training. But the staff there was fantastic, and very professional, and everyone pulled together. I saw other physicians at my company that I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was like getting the band back together again.

It was an unknown situation for all of us, and we were all working hard. Many of us, myself included, were unexpectedly away from our families for long stretches. But never once did I ever hear a single physician or APP complain about being there. I am incredibly proud to be part of the team that pulled it off, despite the difficulty, despite the emotionally charged situation. I can only hope many of the residents I’ve had the privilege of getting to know over the past few weeks get to one day join a team like the one I’m a part of.