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Jennifer Sheets Proves Home Care Workers Are ‘Essential’

The home health care CEO ensures quality care around the world

By Grace Birnstengel

Some call it panic, others call it preparation.

Jennifer Sheets is an example of being prepared without panicking. The president and CEO of Interim Health Care and its parent company Caring Brands International, she began equipping her tens of thousands of U.S. home health care professionals for the COVID-19 pandemic far before it took hold.

Sheets, based in Sunrise, Fla., led with such calm and precision that she even had the bandwidth to help some competitors do the same.

"I had to lobby at the very beginning to say, 'You understand the care that we're providing in the home, right?'"

In many ways, home health care providers were initially forgotten in the early-pandemic madness. Sheets, knowing the essential nature of the work, made it her mission to change this.

Next Avenue: Weeks before the U.S. had its first case of COVID-19, you were readying your teams for a 'What if?' scenario. What did that look like, and how did you know how to prepare?

Jennifer Sheets: The first case that came into the United States was at the Kingston Nursing Center in the state of Washington, and we actually have a location there, and we were helping that nursing center with supplemental staffing. We quickly figured out that this was going to be something a little bit more than we've typically dealt with. We wanted to be very diligent to make sure we were preparing for the worst.

The biggest challenge we found right at the beginning was that home health care workers — believe it or not — were not originally designated as essential employees. So we actually had nurses on their way to a shift for a critical patient, and they were getting turned around by police officers. I had to lobby at the very beginning to say, 'You understand the care that we're providing in the home, right? You understand we have [ventilator] patients in the home?' Thankfully, Homeland Security quickly recognized home care, and that was the essential first step.

Then second biggest challenge we had — like a lot of the rest of the world — was finding and securing enough personal protective equipment (PPE). [Interim] is in eight countries, so what I did was work with some of my advocacy groups in the industry to say, 'Listen, individually, maybe we are not as big as all these big health systems, but collectively the home health industry is huge. So how do we leverage our footprint?'

"Home care is the answer to freeing up bed space and making sure that we're minimizing the spread."

So I launched a dot org site called PPE for Home Care. It was a lot of work, but it was the right thing to do.

When you were taking these steps early on, did you receive any pushback from other leaders in your own organization, competitors or government officials saying, 'It's not going to come here, don't worry about it?'

Where I got the pushback — which surprised me — was our advocacy groups. There are probably ten or twelve industry leaders that get together. Early on we had calls to say, 'How are we going to respond as an industry?' And a couple of folks came out and said, 'Well, we're not taking them. Are you telling me you're taking COVID patients?' And I said, 'Absolutely, we're going to take any patient that needs us as long as we have the personal protective equipment for nurses, and as long as they're safe at home, we play a huge role in this.'

Home care is the answer to freeing up bed space and making sure that we're minimizing the spread — all of that.

Besides giving home care workers the ability to leave their homes and do their jobs during lockdowns, what are some of the other benefits to be gained from this recognition as essential workers?

I feel silly saying anything positive came out of COVID, but a positive coming out COVID is that there is an increased recognition of the home care space. So many people — when they think about home care things — they think grocery shopping, or light housekeeping, or 'I'm going to come in and remind you of medications.' And the reality is we provide care across the entire continuum, from babies that are on ventilator support through end of life and hospice care.

The other thing that I think it helps us to do is have conversations with health systems and work together to say, number one: 'We're here. I know you're trying to free up space. You're trying to discharge your patient.' Home has become even more important to support the nurses and the medical systems in the hospitals.

It was surprising for me to learn that Interim created a PPE-ordering website because it's not necessarily your line of work. What was your thought process behind putting time toward that and allowing your competitors to place orders?

It's definitely not in our lane. You're absolutely right. Our investment board was going, 'What in the heck are you thinking?'

The reality is we lost money, right? But I was seeing several things. I was worried about our caregivers being able to secure PPE because even when governments were rationing or distributing, they were forgetting home care. We were finding that even if we had that first level of personal protective equipment, if they needed to layer something additional, they didn't have it. So it was recognizing the immense need that we had collectively.

We initially started with just Interim locations, and then what I was seeing is a lot of the nonprofits that I work with were reaching out saying, 'Is there any way you can help us? We need equipment.' So I just said, 'We're going to do this.'

I am committed to impacting people's lives for the better. If they choose Interim, awesome. If they choose a competitor, they still have the right to quality care in their home.

Two Questions for Our Influencers

If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be? 

Most people still receive care for separate medical conditions, but research shows that personalized care to provide a whole-health experience improves outcomes. We take this approach by delivering our signature Home Life Enrichment standard-of-care that encompasses patients' minds, bodies, spirit and their families (who are supporting them on their health journey) to maintain both their health and overall well-being.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on aging?

With COVID-19 risks in assisted living facilities and hospitals, or social isolation from visitation restrictions, it became increasingly clear how essential the home care industry is for meeting health care needs in the setting older people especially prefer. Now, even more, families will seek out continuum-of-care options with heightened awareness toward aging in place, so they can still connect with their loved ones in their preferred and lowest cost site of care: their home.

Grace Birnstengel
Grace Birnstengel was an editor, reporter and writer for Next Avenue. She focused on in-depth storytelling and the intersections of identity and aging. Read More
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