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TD Magazine

Where Knowledge Is in the DNA

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

An engrained tradition of L&D has enabled University Health to cope with the travails of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the world continues to cope with the ravages of the pandemic, no segment has been affected more than the healthcare workers who staff the front lines of emergency response and treatment. So, what could be more appropriate for the Association for Talent Development than to recognize one such organization with its inaugural TD for Good Award?


This new tribute celebrates organizations that have leveraged talent development "to improve the lives of others, changed an industry or community for the better, or served society in a powerful way."

That first recipient is University Health, a 104-year-old organization affiliated with UT Health San Antonio. A Level I trauma center and regional referral center serving all of South Texas, University Health's 8,700 employees serve from more than 30 locations, offering every level of care, including two COVID-19 vaccine supersites.

The organization's response to COVID-19 began in January 2020 when US evacuees from Wuhan, China, and later passengers from two cruise ships, were quarantined at nearby Joint Base San Antonio–Lackland Air Force Base. University Health's work with those first cases helped it prepare for the looming public health emergency.

Denise Pruett is executive director of the organization's Center for Learning Excellence. She heads a team of 19 talent development professionals and, like all other University Health employees, has stepped up to maneuver around every pandemic-related impediment in her path. That means maintaining the required flow of learning initiatives and content, including urgent requests from beleaguered departments.

TD to the rescue

It's hard to overstate the critical roles HR and TD personnel served during the pandemic's early challenges—and the need to operate efficiently. Of particular importance was the critical pipeline of new-hire interviewing, processing, and onboarding. Because such interactions always took place in person, the TD team had only converted a small amount of relevant content to a virtual platform.

The team responded quickly when COVID-19 mandates put a sudden end to in-person onboarding activities. It transitioned to an online platform in only two busy weeks, an experience that included immersing team members into the technology's many intricacies. "It was like going to another country and only speaking their language," Pruett recalls.

TD team members are expected to be nimble, vigilant, and prepared for their assignments—a message underscored on day one of the switch from live to virtual instruction. Wisely, Pruett had emphasized bench strength so that teammates knew each other's jobs. The TD team reported on-site daily throughout the pandemic to "feel the pulse" of the entire workforce. Doing so revealed a pressing need for virtual classes on wellness and stress-reduction topics that could comfort the harried workforce.

As Pruett's department coped with its own workload, fortunately without COVID-related illness throughout most of 2020, the staff was also taxed with requests from departments across the organization for assistance configuring their virtual meetings, conducting training, and obtaining assorted job aids. Often, that meant talking colleagues through various options to best meet their goals and reminding them that e-learning is one of many available options.

Other pandemic-related duties for the TD team included developing learning solutions to reskill employees on how to screen and manage patients, wearing personal protective equipment, and appropriately isolating high-risk cases. TD worked closely with the chief medical officer to create uniform scripts.

The team also designed a customized blended learning portfolio on personal protective equipment for 280 environmental services employees. Extensive use of visuals and other teaching aids accommodated employees with limited English, literacy, and digital skills.

Fortuitous timing on one training initiative paid big dividends during the pandemic. The TD function created a custom pathology department supervisor academy in 2019 as many of its personnel were reassigned to an implementation team for the electronic medical record system. The academy was geared to building leadership competencies among newly appointed managers and positioned the team for success when COVID-19 arrived. The pathology team upskilled in new technology and decreased turnaround time for COVID test results from 2–5 days to 4–6 hours. That increased capacity aided the team in securing a state contract providing much-needed test results for Texans.


An award for all

As proud as she is of her own team, Pruett says all of University Health rightfully shares in the TD for Good Award. That's because every team within the organization has always prioritized learning, performance, and efficiency, both individually and in teams. "Knowledge is in our DNA. We're in a constant state of learning, development, and improvement," she contends.

Pruett says all employees focused on excelling in their jobs and were encouraged to develop their talents, assisted by tuition reimbursement and continuing education programs. That credo is on display daily as the workforce unites around the pandemic's unexpected challenges. The need to transform environments has affected every department and employee, along with the patients, partners, suppliers, and community.

Case in point: While many healthcare systems responded to the pandemic with furloughs and layoffs, University Health devised solutions that focused on reallocating and retraining valued employees. HR met daily with organizational leaders throughout 2020 as part of a COVID-19 response team to match staff to scheduling needs and assess reskilling concerns.

What advice does Pruett have for other TD professionals grappling with COVID-19 or other health emergencies? Take care of yourself so you can care for others.

"Yes, we are rugged individuals, and we rise to occasions when people need us. Often, we do so to our own detriment," Pruett notes. "Leaders need to take their own pulses and that of their teammates. Do they need a break from the stress? Should they take time off? If yes, they should take it—employee wellness is 100 percent supported by our CEO."

About the Author

Paul Harris is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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