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Preparing for a pandemic

Judit Csiszar from Alliance Manchester Business School

Protecting staff and controlling the spread of COVID-19 will now be essential for any organisation. Dr Judit Csiszar, who has been running pandemic simulation workshops since before the crisis, explains how they can help prepare managers. Dr Judit Csiszar is a Senior Lecturer in Healthcare Management.

I have been running pandemic simulation workshops on our MSc in International Healthcare Leadership (IHL) programme in Singapore and Dubai for the past two years. Overall five cohorts of Masters students have participated to date with the last simulation exercise having to take place virtually due to COVID-19.

The workshop, which is linked with the International Health Policy module of the Masters programme, has proven to be an effective way of teaching and learning about the complexity of decision-making in the midst of a rapidly evolving pandemic. Specifically, the scenario we create is one of dealing with a pandemic of unknown origin where leaders have to make difficult decisions about capacity, shortage of suitably qualified staff, and challenges of supply in terms of fuel, food, equipment, and medical consumables.

They also face ethical and moral dilemmas of rationing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and have to manage communication with authorities, staff, the community and the general public under extreme pressure. So, exactly the situation we face in the real world today.

Benefits

Simulation-based training offers many benefits to MBA and management and leadership education students and trainees. Although healthcare professionals are inevitably in the frontline of any pandemic and can derive an immediate benefit from pandemic preparation training, the current COVID-19 pandemic makes a very strong case for integrating an appropriately tailored pandemic scenario-based workshop into business/management education as well.

For instance I am currently working on adapting the pandemic material for our MSc in Management in Practice (MiP) programme and we are looking at integrating it into other blended learning leadership and management programmes, as well as into medical and health professional education curricula.

Indeed as the current crisis shows, protecting citizens, service users, clients, staff, and organisational assets – as well as controlling the spread of the virus in an organisation - is relevant to every leader and manager right now.

Teaching method

Scenario-based simulation is widely used in professional education to allow participants to practice their skills in a simulated set-up that resembles potential situations in a real life working environment. It is particularly relevant to medical education where medics can practice and develop their manual, as well as their clinical decision-making skills, on simulated patients and scenarios in a safe environment.

But while we currently use the pandemic simulation linked to healthcare leadership, not all participants in the programme are clinicians or healthcare workers. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, such a pandemic impacts on everyone regardless of their line of business.

Anybody interested in health or healthcare – which is all of us - is able to fully participate in the exercise without any biomedical or epidemiological knowledge.

Just like in real life, participants of this simulation are working with incomplete information, received in various channels and forms over the course of the workshop. They have to put the various pieces together in order to understand and assess the situation, formulate a strategy, and then develop an action plan. The tasks can only be accomplished by close collaboration, transparent communication, and shared leadership among the participants.

Experiences

As a tutor I have witnessed how students grow into their roles as the simulation evolves. Interestingly, I’ve also observed how students from different countries have different experiences and degrees of familiarity with pandemics.

For instance SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) has been a major learning experience in the South East Asia region ever since 2003, and this was then followed by the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009.

As such it is interesting to observe how quickly participants in Singapore move into their simulation role, demonstrating a highly disciplined and almost well-rehearsed execution of the tasks with a very strong team-based approach whereby everybody knows exactly what they are supposed to be doing.

When you speak to them in more depth, many students refer back to the SARS experience and the many drills and table-top exercises they have participated in during their professional career.

Participants at our Middle East campus represent a wide range of nationalities with many having lived and worked in the UK, continental Europe, the US, South Africa, Australia and India, thereby representing a wide range of experiences from the clinical, epidemiological and managerial side of healthcare. Achieving consensus on the best course of action lasts a bit longer in these groups, but the responses are of equally high quality and reflect a great deal of professionalism as well as creativity.

Real life experience

Our last Dubai workshop was conducted in November just before the COVID-19 outbreak and it was interesting how real life events rather took over the workshop. In particular I recall how one member of the cohort, a physician and senior leader, was initially openly sceptical about the need for a pandemic exercise. However, to his credit, he later completely changed his mind as the full horror of dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak on the front line became apparent and he saw the great benefit of such an exercise for learning.