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The Cleveland Clinic is strong financially but 2021 was a tough year for caregivers and patients

Cleveland Clinic CEO and President Tom Mihaljevic addresses the 70,000 clinic employees during his State of the Clinic press conference Wednesday morning. [Cleveland Clinic]
Cleveland Clinic CEO and President Tom Mihaljevic stands on a stage speaking during the annual State of the Clinic press conference.

Updated: 1:03 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the globe last year, the Cleveland Clinic health system served more patients than at any other time in its 100-year history. 

“We have never cared for so many critically ill patients with COVID-19,” Cleveland Clinic CEO and President  Tom Mihaljevic said, during his State of the Clinic press conference Wednesday morning. “Most of them were not vaccinated … their suffering could have been prevented.” 

The hospital system saw a 17% increase in patients in 2021 compared to the year prior, surpassing 10 million patient visits for the first time ever, Mihaljevic said, while speaking to a group of reporters after the address.

Because of this unprecedented activity due to COVID-19, the clinic's operating income grew from $232 million in 2020 to $746 million in 2021.  

The second year of the COVID-19 pandemic drove more people to seek care at the clinic’s hospitals, which challenged caregivers and also drove up profits, Mihaljevic said. 

“This has yielded our finest financial performance, remarkably, during the pandemic,” he said. 

While the financial outcomes were strong, the pandemic took a toll on healthcare workers. 

Thirteen clinic caregivers died from COVID-19, Mihaljevic said. Many employees dealt with grief brought on by witnessing continuous suffering and death and struggled, like everyone, to manage the effects of the pandemic at home, he added. 

The clinic raised pay, according to Mihaljevic, and continues to focus on recruiting during the labor shortage. 

“By every measure, we’ve come through the past two years stronger,” Mihaljevic said. “I want to thank every caregiver.” 

Last year, Mihaljevic publicly expressed concern about imposing a vaccine mandate on staff, citing concerns about a severe nursing shortage and possibly losing employees. The clinic, however, has now implemented a vaccine mandate after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal mandate for health care workers earlier this month.

The clinic and other providers would risk losing funding from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services if they do not require staff to be vaccinated.

Mihaljevic said Wednesday he is not concerned about large numbers of staff quitting due to the mandate. 

“I would like to believe that the number of that is going to be truly, truly small,” he said. 

More than 90 percent of caregivers are already vaccinated, he added.  

Mihaljevic described 2021 as a year of challenges and also successes, noting that while the health system was strained by the pandemic, it also broke ground on new facilities in London, raised $2.6 billion in donations, committed $2.5 million to fight lead poisoning in Cleveland homes, and used their influence to attract a mixed-use development including a grocery store to the corner of East 105 th Street and Cedar Avenue.   

“While we’re not grocers, we do have influence,” he said. 

The hospital system also hired and promoted 600 African American employees in 2021, and 1 in 4 new managers identify as a minority, Mihaljevic added. Across the globe, Cleveland Clinic employs more than 70,000 people. 

The hospital has made some changes to its hiring practices to bring in more people who do not have a college education but are otherwise qualified for some positions, he said. 

“We have, for certain jobs, moved away from mandatory degrees for people who step into the job, and switched over to skills – so skill-based criteria for hiring, instead of degree-based criteria for hiring,” he said.  

Cleveland Clinic is also trying to recruit individuals from the communities surrounding the main campus, Mihaljevic added.  

“We have actually been going from door to door in our neighborhoods and searching for people who are in the job market and introducing them into careers in healthcare,” he said. 

The successes came as the system maintained its national rankings amid the pandemic-fueled surge in patients. 

“Teamwork is our defining attribute,” Mihaljevic said. “Our patients remind us that there can be no limitations in what they set out to achieve… When we work as a team of teams anything is possible — even miracles.” 

Stephanie is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.