By contributor Marc Monseau
Taking over the helm of a regional hospital in the midst of one of the worst public health crises since the 1918 Flu comes with a host of challenges.
Matters such as resolving COVID-19-related supply issues, coordinating mass vaccinations, and easing the pandemic’s emotional and physical toll on healthcare workers have placed a significant strain on healthcare providers nationwide.
Yet thanks to his extensive operational experience, James Demetriades believes he’s up to the task of steering Penn Medicine Princeton Health through the challenges of today’s rapidly changing healthcare landscape while positioning the Plainsboro-based hospital system for long-term success.
“Having an operational background and an understanding of how the organization functions are ideal experiences,” said Demetriades, who assumed the role of CEO of Princeton Health on March 1. “Coming into this new role, I can build on the investments already made into the future of this organization.”
Demetriades replaced Barry Rabner, who had served as President and CEO of the healthcare system since 2002. A 17-year-veteran of Princeton Health, Demetriades previously served as senior vice president and chief operating officer and played key roles in some of Princeton Health’s most important recent milestones, notably joining the University of Pennsylvania Health System in 2018,
Rolling out the vaccine
Most recently, Demetriades helped guide Princeton Health’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a challenge that continues as the hospital system plays a key role in the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines.
Working closely with the New Jersey Department of Health and the NJ Hospital Association, Princeton Health has so far distributed more than 21,000 vaccine doses, averaging about 1,000 doses per week, in spite of limited vaccine availability.
“Vaccine availability has been a struggle for all hospitals in the state,” the 44-year-old Yardley, Pa. resident said. “We’ve not been immune to that in any way.”
To support the vaccine rollout, Princeton Health first established a web-based form to triage vaccine inquiries. “That had some challenges,” Demetriades said. Princeton Health then moved to a call center model for accepting appointments that was so overwhelmed with requests for vaccines, the hospital’s phone lines crashed. Princeton Health has since developed a more reliable process that includes a website form to sign up for the waitlist for a vaccine, and a call center that then coordinates appointment scheduling.
As New Jersey’s vaccine allocation increases, Demetriades hopes to ramp up vaccination distribution through Princeton Health. The hospital system is exploring opportunities to create vaccination sites in Northern Mercer County, ideally on the Mercer County side of the Millstone River.
Last week, Princeton Health announced it had teamed up with schools in Middlesex, Mercer, and Somerset counties to provide vaccine clinics for staff members of the host school and neighboring districts.
“We view the education system as the key demographic for the vaccine,” Demetriades said.
COVID-19’s long-term impact on Princeton Health
The pandemic placed a significant strain on healthcare providers nationwide, presenting challenges that are already shaping Demetriades’ approach to the long-term management of Princeton Health.
“COVID has changed how care is delivered for the future permanently,” Demetriades said.
During the pandemic, Princeton Health, like other healthcare systems, experienced a dramatic downturn in in-person appointments as patients and physicians turned to online telehealth services. Demetriades said that Princeton Health’s emergency department has seen a 25% decline in visits as telehealth has become increasingly used for both primary and some specialty care appointments. That trend is likely to continue.
“We will continue to have a hybrid model” providing both in-person appointments and telehealth options,” Demetriades said. “People enjoy that level of experience, and we will continue to make that available to them.”
Supply chain issues
Like other hospital systems, Princeton Health had moved to a just-in-time supply model prior to the pandemic that enabled the company to save money by maintaining a low level of inventory for medical supplies. As COVID-19 cases spiked, supplies of medical equipment in the region were rapidly depleted, stretching the supply chain as healthcare providers competed for limited resources.
To address this gap, Princeton Health scrambled to create its own strategic stockpile of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other critical equipment. At the same time, community members rose to the challenge of helping area hospitals like Princeton Health by providing donations of PPE, sanitizer, food, and hotel rooms to healthcare workers.
“We were at the tip of the spear,” Demetriades said. “We have a heavy influence from New York and had to move extremely quickly to serve the community. I won’t go again without 90 to 120 days of N95s and other personal protective equipment.”
The pandemic also placed significant stress on Princeton Health employees, leading the organization to provide additional support services to ensure staff wellness.
“They were working a full shift in less-than-ideal conditions, then going home and homeschooling and catching up on the virtual learning environment or taking care of family members who lost jobs as part of this pandemic,” Demetriades said. “This has put such a strain on the healthcare community.”
Fortunately, Demetriades said, Princeton Health’s religious ministries group tracked the impact of the pandemic on staff wellness. Working in collaboration with the religious ministries department, Princeton Health brought in psychological support for staff.
As hospitals and other providers come under increased scrutiny from insurers and other payers to provide value-based healthcare, it’s no surprise that Demetriade’s top priority as CEO is to enhance quality at Princeton Health.
“We need to evolve from a quality perspective,” Demetriades said as he underscored recent quality accolades from advocacy groups, regulators, and rating agencies. “It’s what the community demands.” Recently, the 102-year-old hospital system was named one of the best regional hospitals in New Jersey by US News & World Report, earned an “A” rating by the Leapfrog Group, and was recognized by the American Heart Association for its stroke care.
While maintaining quality, Demetriades said he hopes to expand Princeton Health’s footprint in the region to include outpatient centers providing specialty services in Hillsborough, Robbinsville, and Pennington.
In addition to a geographic expansion, Demetriades plans to broaden the types of services offered by Princeton health. As an example, Demetriades said that the hospital recently received approval from the State of New Jersey to expand its cardiovascular services beyond providing emergency coronary intervention services to providing elective angioplasties.
“We’re eager to move into that phase for the community,” Demetriades said. “It’s a huge benefit for the community.” Princeton Health also aims to develop its cancer service line into a broader and more prominent cancer program, Demetriades said.
As the hospital system grows, Demetriades said he aims to ensure Princeton Health continues to provide patients with easy access to healthcare professionals and specialists.
“Our community wants top-notch services and they want a diverse mix of services in the community, but they want to have the ability to see their providers in a reasonable among of time,” Demetriades said. “Unlike major academic centers, patients in our region don’t want to wait four to six months to see a provider.”
Focus on staffing
The staff of Princeton Health, according to Demetriades, are crucial to the long-term success of the organization.
“We are blessed to have one of the most talented medical staff in the region,” he said. “We have a very engaged private practice that has really built this organization.”
Before serving as senior vice president and chief operating officer, Demetriades held various roles within Princeton Health, including operational responsibility for surgical services, laboratory services, the system’s cancer program and other clinical and non-clinical areas, giving him hands-on experience working with teams from across the business.
“Given my years of life and service here, I know the perspectives of the medical staff, the care teams, and all the staff that makes this organization tick,” Demetriades said. “We learned from the pandemic that the people in this organization are what make this place special.”