There was no playbook to prepare local health networks for the global medical crisis that arrived on the doorstep of the United States in early 2020.
And so, as cases of COVID-19 began to mount here and across the country, it was up to people like Dr. Jennifer Stephens to create their own plan.
“When it all started to gain momentum, our team was called upon to create real-time solutions that would support and protect the community,” says Stephens, a student in the DeSales University MBA program. Stephens is also a chief medical officer for quality and patient safety at Lehigh Valley Physician Group (LVPG). It’s a subsidiary of Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) comprising about 1,500 doctors and clinicians from dozens of medical specialties.
Top priorities included:
- Establishing COVID-19 testing sites across the region
- Determining how to process the wave of tests coming out of those sites
- Deciding which LVPG locations should temporarily close out of an abundance of caution
- Changing the way the health network offered everyday care
“We needed to flip our healthcare delivery system into a virtual-care model overnight,” Stephens says. “The first six weeks of this was a point in my career that I will never forget. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it; we compressed years’ of work into those few weeks.”
At the peak of the pandemic, LVHN was operating more than 12 regional testing sites across several counties. It had converted care to a 75 percent virtual model, far exceeding performance across the country.
Stephens credits her team at the health network for the success.
“Everyone had a singular focus, which was flattening the curve and caring for our community,” she says. “That focus went from senior leadership all the way to our front-line staff.”
Stephens says she was also buoyed by the skills she was honing as a student in DeSales University’s MBA program. She just happened to be enrolled in an executive skills class as the pandemic picked up steam.
Stephens was called upon to apply new classroom learning to real-life practice, especially when it came to conveying difficult news to her fellow clinicians. “Each of the different facets of the training program came out,” she says. “I was learning what things to say and how to frame messages — the content as well as the delivery.”
In fact, she believes the curriculum — with a concentration in healthcare administration — afforded her many opportunities to flex her management muscles in new ways. “Every class I attended was perfectly made for what I was going through professionally. It was well-timed for what I was experiencing and strengthened my leadership when I needed it the most.”
It’s no secret that medical doctors undergo many years of instruction, both in the classroom and in the clinical setting. So why would a well-established physician, with that grueling training distant in the rearview mirror, want to return to the higher learning setting?
Stephens says she was looking to learn more about the financial and business side of healthcare. “I wanted to understand all the variables and nuances involved to ensure I was the strongest clinician leader I could be.”
Stephens grew up near Chester County. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Ursinus College, Collegeville, in 1999 before moving on to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
An internship in 2003 and subsequent residency brought Stephens to LVHN and to the Lehigh Valley. She’s been here ever since. “I love the area,” she says. “It wasn’t too far from home, and a great place to raise a family.”
There’s always been an administrative component to her professional career, starting with her time as chief medical resident at Lehigh Valley Health Network in 2007. Throughout the course of her career, she has held a variety of leadership roles in graduate medical education, ambulatory healthcare, quality improvement, and value-based care management.
It’s an impressive résumé for sure. But, in 2017, before stepping into her current CMO role, Stephens was ready to take it to the next level. She wanted to be the best leader she could be and fill in some of the blanks in areas outside of her medical expertise. “They don’t teach us much about business in medical school,” she says.
Stephens had heard positive things about the DeSales MBA curriculum from her boss, Dr. Michael Rossi, chief physician executive of LVHN and president of LVPG. She also got favorable input from fellow clinicians who had graduated from the program. What’s more, the school’s strong religious roots appealed to her.
But the biggest selling point may have been the program’s pliability for students seeking a nontraditional higher learning experience.
“I needed the flexibility of having asynchronous classes,” Stephens says. “As an adult learner, busy professional, mom, and wife, to me that’s one of the most critically important things.” Stephens took one flex class; the rest were all completed virtually.
Some prospective students might question whether they’ll reap the same benefits from virtual learning as they would from a typical, in-person classroom setting. Stephens’ advice? “It’s all about what you put into it.”
She also credits DeSales’ faculty with cultivating a lively learning experience. “The professors, they’re dynamos,” she says. “They’re just so good at this. They have figured out how to keep the students engaged. The courses are professional, robust, and enjoyable.”
Stephens is a married mother of three children, ages 14, 13, and 6; she credits her husband, Wayne, with helping her stay grounded amidst pandemic-planning, family/professional demands, and juggling her MBA coursework.
All of that hustle paid off when Dr. Jennifer Stephens officially became Dr. Jennifer Stephens, MBA. And while finding free time during the past three years may have been difficult, Stephens says she’s relished the journey.
“I would do it all over again. It was one of the best career decisions I ever made.”
by Amy Unger
Article originally appeared in the DeSales University 2019-20 Annual Report