RIT Rallies: Professor reroutes sabbatical travel to help local hospital system protect its workforce

The coronavirus canceled an RIT professor’s international travel plans and led to an unexpected opportunity to help a local health system manage the impact of COVID-19 on its hospital workforce.

Instead of a sabbatical spent partly in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, John Oliphant, an associate professor in the physician assistant program, has found meaningful experience closer to home.

Oliphant—who has worked part-time at UR Medicine Thompson Health in Canandaigua since 2003—was promoted earlier this year to assistant medical director of Associate Health. Because the medical director is located at a different off-site facility, Oliphant provides the primary medical oversight on-location in the Associate Health department at Thompson Health. He took on his expanded administrative role mere weeks before coronavirus spread to the region.

Oliphant’s personal and scholarly interest in global and public health, health systems leadership and policy prepared him to take the lead in organizing the healthcare system’s approach to employee health during the pandemic. Based on guidelines from the New York State Department of Health, he organized a team that developed protocols for managing employees sickened by COVID-19 and those possibly exposed to COVID-19.

Determining who is permitted to work and who must be quarantined was only one layer of the guidelines Oliphant helped to operationalize. His team has also shaped procedures for deciding who is eligible for quarantine pay; assessing which employees should receive testing for COVID-19 and developing a system for making that happen; while simultaneously developing data tracking spreadsheets and follow-up policies. His team also created a dedicated COVID-19 hotline for Thompson Health employees with a group of nurses from the University of Rochester.

“This whole scenario has thrust me into an amazing deep dive into global public health and health systems administration,” Oliphant said. “There is a daily COVID-19 strategy call with all health system leaders that I have participated in multiple times, and I am regularly asked to help interpret and implement New York State Department of Health guidelines.”

Oliphant’s initial sabbatical plans involved filming a pilot documentary in Haiti and in the Dominican Republic for a new series called Agents of Change. The premise of the docuseries highlights inspiring humanitarians who enrich the world, he said. Travel restrictions put the project on hold.

“It is a horrible reality we find ourselves in and not at all what I expected to be doing during my sabbatical, but hopefully the lessons I am learning and the real-world experience I am gaining from dealing with this pandemic will allow me to better educate RIT students interested in global and public health, health systems leadership and policy, and the potential oversight role a PA can play in such a crisis,” Oliphant said.

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