Hospital leader keeps safety equipment in steady supply

UI Hospitals & Clinics’ Chief Pharmacy Officer Mike Brownlee helps protect health care workers.

When Mike Brownlee, PharmD, became chief pharmacy officer of University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in 2012, he never imagined that, one day, his wood and metalworking hobby would help him troubleshoot during a pandemic.

Before the novel coronavirus, Brownlee focused on overseeing all of the hospital’s pharmacy operations. He ran everything from in-patient and retail pharmacies to infusions and investigational drugs while managing more than 500 staff members and a $350 million budget. He also is associate dean of the UI College of Pharmacy, which means he teaches every fall and directs a hospital residency program for newly licensed pharmacists.

Now, Brownlee has taken on another role as a key player in the Hospital Incident Command System, which allows the hospital to respond efficiently during emergencies such as the COVID-19 situation. His responsibilities involve supervising clinical support areas such as lab, pharmacy, and radiology and helping procure personal protective equipment (PPE)—including masks, gowns, face shields, and gloves—and other supplies for the more than 13,000 employees, students, and volunteers who work at UI Hospitals & Clinics.

Even before the hospital received its first coronavirus patient in early March 2020, the crisis had disrupted its supply chains. The incident command team was brainstorming options when Brownlee had a eureka moment.

“Our epidemiologists told us we’d need face shields for everyone, and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe we could use the same ones I wear in my workshop,” he says.

That night, Brownlee sent one of his directors to a local industrial-supply chain store to see what was available. Within the hour, a small leadership group had met and decided to order approximately 15,000 shields for all staff. Although the hospital ultimately received only a few hundred shields from this order—due to the business deciding to divide its inventory and donate to several hospitals—it was one of many ways that Brownlee and his team have been thinking outside the box since the virus took hold. In about a month, they had acquired enough face shields to distribute one to every hospital employee.

Each year, UI Hospitals & Clinics admits approximately 37,000 people for in-patient care. In fiscal year 2019, nearly 56,000 people visited its emergency room and more than 1 million patients came through its 200 outpatient clinics and care centers. Brownlee’s team must ensure that everyone stays safe during these visits, including the health care workers treating patients with COVID-19.

This has meant long workdays filled with strategy meetings, brainstorming sessions, and phone calls to potential suppliers. Brownlee, who says his past experiences have made him “built for intensity,” was putting in 14-hour days at the pandemic’s start.

His team also implemented creative solutions that have led to inspiring community collaborations. Parents of Chinese students studying at the UI arranged for donations of extra N95 and surgical masks. HNI Corporation, of Muscatine, Iowa, began manufacturing hospital gowns and arranging prototype hand-offs outside Brownlee’s house. The UI College of Pharmacy produced hand sanitizer in its drug manufacturing facility. Protostudios, the university’s rapid prototyping facility, turned out plastic face shields. And countless people started sewing and donating face masks.

“It’s incredible to witness the capabilities that Iowans—and many others—have to repurpose factories and come up with solutions and products,” Brownlee says.

While he’s seen improvements in the supply chain, Brownlee says they still work daily to provide adequate PPE to treat patients returning for elective surgeries and appointments that were on hold during quarantine. And though the UI is participating in clinical drug trials for treating COVID-19, the virus will continue to present challenges for months to come.

“We had a little more time to prepare than some other hospitals in the country,” Brownlee says. “We were ready to be overwhelmed, and even though that hasn’t happened, we’ve continued to do everything possible to ensure that our patients, faculty, and staff are safe.”

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