Quarantales #8: Alexandria Inova Hospital President Talks Candidly About the Pandemic and Telemedicine

“Our true goal – what we talk about at every meeting – is about the quality of care we provide and safety of our patients. That’s most important thing. Period.”

Dr. Rina Bansal chose a career in medicine over research. She is both an MD and an MBA, and earned both degrees simultaneously. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Rina Bansal).

Stories from Alexandrians that will make you smile. We hope.

ALEXXANDRIA, VA – Dr. Rina Bansal, President of Alexandria Inova Hospital, talks about life, kids, and COVID-19.

This interview is supposed to make people smile. Make me smile.

Laughs. Well, my kids are crazy. They are 13 and 10.

OK, that worked. How do you deal with the crazy?

I don’t know. I’m trying to keep myself from going insane. It’s tough. My 10-year-old entertains himself with video games and a big purple exercise ball. It’s his new best friend. My teenager, it’s tough. She’s on the phone 24/7. She’s in that defiant phase and thinks she knows everything. It’s been quite the transition, but overall we’re doing well.

So did your kids pressure you into getting a dog during the pandemic?

We already have a little French bulldog who’s almost four. Her name is Coco Chanel. She’s adorable.

Dr. Bansal and her sister mimic road signs during their international travels. This photo was taken in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Rina Bansal).

You said during the ACT Now Tuesday Talk last week that this pandemic has brought home the importance of family to you.

Right. I moved to the US when I was 14. My mom was already at the University of Kansas doing post-doctoral work in biochemistry and my dad sent me there to keep her company. I landed in Kansas on a Saturday and started high school on Monday. So here I was, this little, 5-feet-tall Indian girl, and my guidance counselor was 6’5”. I’ve never seen people that tall or big!

My whole family is in India now. We love and care for each other but we took each other for granted. You know, thinking you could get on plane whenever you wanted, and suddenly I can’t travel to see them. It made me realize how far I am from them.

You’ve had a pretty international life.

Yes! I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, then we moved to India when I was four. I was only there for ten years, but those were very formative years. It defined who I am as a person. I never really questioned my ethnicity or religion or background until I came to the US. Part of that was just starting college and that whole existential part of my life. I’ve been here ever since, except for five years in Montreal getting my MD and MBA.

My sister and I still travel. We’ve been to Japan, Norway, and Iceland, and we’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Ireland is next on the list.

When did you know you wanted to be a doctor?

In high school. Both of my parents have PhDs in biochemistry, and Mom got her PhD after having two kids. My parents are a little crazy, I guess. They did a lot of research and told me not to be a researcher! It’s a tough life to always apply for grants and get funding. It was a much more difficult way to make a living than as a physician. But I always knew I’d do something in the sciences.

Enjoying the April 28 “Siren Salute” with a masked superhero. (Photo courtesy of Inova Health System).

How have you kept morale up at the hospital?

We have lots of food! We’ve all gained a few pounds but it’s been a huge morale booster. We get daily deliveries of food from the community. People tend to gather around food so we keep our social distancing and we also take the food to other units. And we do lots of work with employee assistance and pastoral care. In the end, I’m not sure if anything can mitigate the emotional impact of the pandemic though.

Why has COVID-19 hit the world so hard?

Two things – the critical nature of the disease plus the volume of the disease. So it wasn’t just people being ill, it was the number of people who were ill. The ICU was full of very sick patients. Did you see the intensity of COVID over in Italy? It was crazy! We prepared for that level of intensity here but we never got there. But, the potential was always there.

You also said during that ACT Now talk that the increase in telemedicine during COVID-19 could be a positive change in medical care. What did you mean by that?

One of biggest challenges to medical care is access, and not just in rural areas. It’s about access to specialists too. Even here in northern Virginia, before COVID you had to take a half day from work, with appointment and drive time. I think telemedicine will really transform how people access medicine and medical care, but the reimbursement model doesn’t support it yet. You can’t charge for a physical exam, for example. But, telemedicine will make it much easier for people to use healthcare services.

Hanging out with our founding father during the Washington Nationals’ World Series trophy presentation. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Rina Bansal).

You said revenue dropped 40 percent at the hospital. How can people help?

There’s two ways. First, we’re a nonprofit with an active foundation so people can donate. And, people can access healthcare again. People are fearful of doing that. They don’t want to go to a hospital or see a doctor, or they don’t have insurance. That’s driving the decreased use of healthcare. It is not all about the revenue and I worry people not taking care of themselves. So please come back and see your doctors! Go to the emergency room if you need to!

What do you want readers to know?

To truly understand what drives me and my team, and that’s to provide truly excellent care. I don’t know why else you’d go into healthcare.

READ MORE: To see whole Quarantale Series, click here.