The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched the limits of health-care systems nationwide, including those providing mental health services. For organizations such as Valley Behavioral Health, which runs a network of behavioral health clinics in the Salt Lake City area, the pandemic not only fueled demand; it required the nonprofit to move hundreds of staff to remote work and swiftly transition in-person care to telehealth services.
Fortunately, Valley Behavioral Health had been laying the groundwork for telemedicine and remote collaboration for several years prior to the outbreak, according to Gary Larcenaire, its CEO and president. “It wasn’t that any of us predicted a pandemic would happen this year,” he says, “but we had started retooling the collaboration infrastructure as a routine course of agile business adaptation.”
Back in 2014, Larcenaire realized that the company’s old ways of communicating—email and phone calls—fell short. The companywide email announcements had a 3% open rate. “We had this delusion that email was somehow facilitating communication within teams and among teams and between teams,” he says. “It was a complete and total delusion.” Something needed to change. After hearing about Slack from a developer friend, Larcenaire decided to roll out the channel-based messaging platform across the entire organization.
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Today, Slack Enterprise Grid, which supports large, complex teams—and can be configured for HIPAA compliance—keeps Valley Behavioral Health’s 850 employees, including 100 independent contractors, in seamless contact, whether they’re in the clinic or working from home. By removing the friction of day-to-day communication, Slack enables the organization’s employees to swiftly respond to change and focus on delivering the best possible behavioral health care, even in the midst of a global pandemic.
Transitioning 70% of staff to remote work in seven days
When coronavirus started spreading across the U.S., Valley Behavioral Health’s teams hit the ground running. The company’s executive leadership relied on a private Slack channel, a digital space for sensitive conversations, to assess the situation and decide on a course of action. By March 11, the leadership team made the call to move 70% of staff to remote work; only essential workers would remain onsite.
Executives communicated the news companywide via a public Slack channel, where employees could ask questions and get answers. Early on, the leadership team conducted surveys in Slack using the Poll Everywhere app to determine employees’ child-care and technology needs. Based on the responses, Valley Behavioral Health set up day care for on-site first responders and provided technology to those who needed it. The transition to remote work was completed in a week.
Tara Ayrton, Valley Behavioral Health’s chief administrative officer, says teams have relied on Slack throughout the crisis. “We communicate most of what we do at the company through Slack,” she says. “We have this joke that when we create a channel, it will solve our problems.” Teams use channels to stay aligned and Slack’s Cisco Webex Meetings app when they need facetime. The organization has customized Slack’s call setting to default to Webex so users can join digital meetings without having to shuffle between applications.
“We communicate most of what we do at the company through Slack. We have this joke that when we create a channel, it will solve our problems.”
While Valley Behavioral Health has transitioned the majority of its services to telehealth, several hundred workers remain in the field. For them, Slack is a lifeline to headquarters. Rebecca Hawkes, the COO, estimates that 98% of communication with these employees happens in Slack. Case in point: When a patient tested positive for Covid-19 in one of Valley Behavioral Health’s facilities, Hawkes immediately notified staff, provided an action plan, and contacted the property management company to clean the building—all via Slack. “It was all coordinated flawlessly, quite frankly,” Larcenaire says.
Internal coordination was tested again when a 5.7-magnitude earthquake hit the Salt Lake City area on March 18. “We were in communication on Slack almost immediately—checking on staff, getting echoes back and making sure that all our sites were OK,” Hawkes says. “I don’t think any of us could imagine life without Slack now.”
Coordinating patient care while maintaining HIPAA compliance
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, Valley Behavioral Health had moved patient-focused work into Slack. With Slack Enterprise Grid, teams can share patient documents and data in Slack while meeting HIPAA requirements, including keeping patients’ electronic protected health information secure. In fact, Larcenaire says the company has moved much of its internal communication from email into Slack. “With Slack, all communication is happening in a contained HIPAA environment that’s not emailable, and the platform keeps everyone off of texting and allows them to operate as a team,” he says.
Beyond meeting privacy and security standards, Slack enables Valley Behavioral Health’s teams to more fully connect around the patient experience. Teams depend on Slack for a wide variety of uses, including:
Cross-functional care: When patients require a more holistic approach, multidisciplinary teams, ranging from doctors to therapists to social workers, use a Slack channel to coordinate care and keep everyone up to speed on the latest treatment plan.
After-hours support: Rather than searching for an on-call doctor, staff can post questions about medication or treatment plans in a dedicated channel. The available physician will offer near-immediate assistance around the clock.
Coordinating coverage: If providers have a home visit or appointment that runs over time, they can quickly find a colleague to cover for them by posting in a Slack channel. This way, each provider can focus on his or her current patient without inconveniencing the next one.
Announcements: Teams use channels to push time-sensitive information out to their partners. For instance, the pharmacy team can quickly remind staff to submit any last-minute prescription fills before their daily delivery.
“With Slack, all communication is happening in a contained HIPAA environment that’s not emailable, and the platform keeps everyone off of texting and allows them to operate as a team.”
Managing the business side of behavioral health
It’s virtually impossible to deliver quality care without a strong business and operational backbone. To keep systems flowing smoothly and teams across the company informed, Valley Behavioral Health again turns to Slack.
Keeping everyone in the know
Valley Behavioral Health uses
#general as a companywide announcements channel and limits posting access to administrators so only the most relevant information appears. This ensures that employees always know where to find the latest company news and information.
Removing IT hurdles
A mundane operational challenge, be it a software bug or login issue, can have a cascading effect on not only the patient experience but also the caregivers’ ability to perform at their best. “When a person has a problem with payroll, they’re not thinking about client care,” Larcenaire says.
With Slack, employees can submit issues in the
#it-support channel and receive a rapid response. Chief information officer Tyler Tait says that switching from emails, phone calls and tickets to Slack has cut the response time drastically, from days to minutes: “Slack has revolutionized everything in the sense that we are able to be so much more responsive and answer people’s questions within minutes. And you have a paper trail in the channel, so people can see exactly what’s going on.”
Each division within Valley Behavioral Health has its own channel where high-level topics are discussed and decisions are made, according to Ayrton. By empowering divisions to take ownership of some aspects of the business, the organization enables everyone to move faster. “We’re able to have discussions in the channel, everybody can give an opinion, and we can move through things quicker,” she says. “We don’t have that funnel of one person handling everything in the company, filtering information or stopping things. You just add it to your council channel and we discuss it there.”
It’s exactly that kind of grassroots coordination that allowed Valley Behavioral Health to respond quickly to the coronavirus pandemic. When something new comes up, whether it’s a companywide transition to remote work, a change in CDC guidelines, or a case of Covid-19 at a clinic, teams across the company are at the ready, thanks in part to Slack.