Optum strength and flexibility under COVID-19

Wyatt Decker, MD, MBA, CEO, OptumHealth
Daniel Frank, MD, CMO, Optum Care
Efrem Castillo, MD, Senior Vice President, Optum Care


Optum Care is a family of over 52,000 physicians working together in over 1,500 local clinics to help over 18.5 million people live healthier lives. Our aim is to get patients on the right course of care by providing each a coordinated Optum Care team. 

We back our doctors with easy access to a national knowledge network of proven clinical insights and treatment plans. As important, we define our success by the health and happiness we help our patients realize. 

It’s how we’re helping people live healthier lives and helping to make a health system that works better for everyone.  

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It’s hard to capture the enormous effort given by Optum employees and clinicians over the past months. Days off became a thing of the past. Late nights and early mornings, extra shifts, new roles, responsibilities so great we previously might not have thought ourselves up to the task. 

But the work needed to be done, and we were the people to do it. Across the board our clinicians and the many people who support them stepped up. Optum is proud of what we have done, for our patients and for each other.

Protecting our teams, caring for our patients

The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic had an unimaginable impact on our clinicians, our patients, and public health. All corners of our lives and our organization have been touched. 

Through the crucible of this challenge, we saw how the culture of the people and teams within Optum gave the organization the strength and resiliency needed to face the unpredictable.

Optum has been able to move so nimbly because as a national group we could see trends and anticipate need, applying lessons learned in one place to the next that will use them, mobilizing resources across the nation.

– Dr. Wyatt Decker

Using scale to meet essential needs

Early in the year, Optum leadership began assembling clinical and supply chain experts to address what has come to be recognized as a major challenge of the virus: sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Scouring the globe for the masks, gowns and gloves that we needed to deliver care, we brought in supplies on trucks, ships and chartered cargo planes. Through the combined efforts of our organization, we were able to keep adequate stock of key PPE to help keep our providers and patients safe.


Providing the latest evidence-based medicine

At the same time, we engaged internal and external panels of infectious disease experts to advise on how to keep clinicians and patients safe.  

We called on our best evidence-based care model, OptimalCare, to identify best practices and convey them to the front line. This ensured the best protections for our clinicians and best care for our patients was quickly implemented across the board. 

Innovating using the experience from the front line 

As hotspots appeared in the United States, The Everett Clinic in Washington state handled some of the first community-transmitted cases of COVID-19. 

Frontline clinicians came back with concerns that the use of deep nasopharyngeal swabs, standard for COVID-19 testing, put them in the direct line of sneezes and coughs resulting from the swab, increasing their risk of exposure and requiring multiple changes of PPE each shift. 

Based on this feedback and experience, a team came together and pioneered a new way of testing using outer and mid-nose swabs, which can be self-administered by the patient. 

This adaptation was proven as effective, and lead to the FDA and CDC changing their testing guidelines. The result is improved protection of clinicians, minimized exposure, less PPE being used and greater patient comfort with testing.

Demonstrating resilience and integrity throughout the enterprise

As COVID-19 swept the entire United States, our vigilance in protecting our clinicians and their patients did not wane. We worked toward continual improvement: organizing and putting into action lessons learned from current and controlled hotspots to better serve those communities with growing caseloads.

Putting our talent where they are needed

Our experience in Washington was translatable and informed our response in New York. Here, we showcased our flexibility by reinforcing our own nurse line. We redeployed nurses who were no longer providing in-person care to meet call volume that was growing exponentially. 

Realizing the promise of digital health

For several years, Optum has been developing digital health capacity. In March through June of this year, in response to the constraints COVID-19 placed on our facility resources, our digital health initiative has gone warp speed into the future. 

Scaling our platforms to enable thousands of providers and their patients the chance to consult online or over the phone gave patients a lifeline to their own providers, gave providers a safe way to practice, and conserved resources to protect our clinicians on the front lines of the pandemic.

Taking responsibility for the needs of our clinicians

For clinicians required to work in person, school and daycare center closings became a hurdle. Optum recognized this and committed 25 million dollars to acquiring childcare for our clinicians.

Meeting needs as they arose included access to tools to help manage the stress that change and uncertainty brought with it. Many acts of aid helped clinicians and their support teams alike. 

Sanvello, the number one rated app delivering self-care, support groups, and therapy, was available to our workers. 

Additionally the website “Loveforthefrontline.com” was built to address needs from food and housing to mood and relaxation. Articles, videos, and stories found the joy in coming together in new, meaningful ways.

Our bottom-line mission throughout the crisis was clear: We will take care of our people so that they can take care of our patients. The ability to flex to meet changing needs meant that, as an organization, none of our employees lost jobs or were put on furlough. This crisis required all our talent, working together.

We will make the most out of this health care hard reset

This is our opportunity to change health care the way we’ve been saying we want to, to transform the way we’ve always done things. I put an emphasis on the 'we.' We have to do it together, coordinated across the country.

– Dr. Dan Frank

What happened during the crisis months of 2020 gives us a chance at something more than a single moment of pride at how we came together. We’ve had a cosmic event in the world of health care delivery. 

As we catch our breath, we can look to what we learned over those sleepless months and employ our momentum to bring to bear a promising future of health care. 

We have the potential to break the cycle of waste and give patients high-value care by encouraging clinicians and patients to embrace evidence-based levels of treatment. Telemedicine gives us the opportunity to treat low-acuity health issues, such as urinary tract infections, from home. 

COVID-19 gave us a massive test run, showing that value-based care improves patients' satisfaction with their care and giving clinicians the chance to practice to the top of their licenses. Because of this, we can adjust the spend cycle and put our nation on course for sustainability in health care. 

The slate is clean, and on it we can build high-value care by employing and continuing with what we’ve learned: Focus on the right care, at the right time.

Defining the future of Optum

This is a story of coming together, growing closer as we fight our common adversary.

– Dr. Efrem Castillo

Our group has never been more united. Battling COVID-19, whether in a clinic or hospital, in operations, finance, or the enterprise team, everyone worked long hours making difficult decisions — all led by the collective need to protect our people so they could care for our patients.

As we stay vigilant and begin to reopen clinics and expand services, we are all aware of opportunities to change for the better. 

With the countless lessons learned, we will move forward knowing that Optum faced modern health care’s greatest challenge as an organization of individuals with unique strengths who are flexible in their roles. 

Everyone showed sincere dedication to our patients. This is how we will make the health care system work better for everyone.

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This publication is informational and for educational purposes for practitioners only. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Optum Care. The views and opinions expressed may change without notice. 

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