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EXCLUSIVE: Dr. Saturnino Javier's Inspiring Leadership Drives Makati Medical Center's Notable COVID-19 Response

Restraint and objectivity define Dr. Saturnino "Bong" Javier’s leadership of Makati Medical Center. With a bright yet realistic vision for the future, he ultimately hopes that we, as a nation, learn from how we face the pandemic and find ways to adapt and work harmoniously together

If there are two words one might use to talk about Dr. Saturnino “Bong” Javier of the Makati Medical Center (MMC), it would be restraint and objectivity. This surfaced in his handling of a Senator breaching hospital protocols at the height of the first surge of COVID-19 patients. But it is also in how he has led MMC in these unprecedented times.


“It was a very sensitive issue in the hospital, and it came at the worst time. It came when PPEs were running low, the hospital was at full capacity, our healthcare workers were either quarantined or sick, so that was the worst time to have any breach of infection and containment protocols,” Dr. Javier says. “Ordinarily, in my younger days I would have responded impulsively to it but somehow you develop restraint with age.”


But restraint is also in how he chooses his words to talk about this pandemic, an exercise made more difficult by how this crisis is not just about an unknown virus, but about how the government has failed to prepare us for it. Public consensus is clear: much of our collective anxiety is borne of the absence of competent and credible leadership at a time like this one.


Makati Medical Center, though, can claim to have exactly the leadership it needs in Dr. Javier. “I think all throughout the pandemic, we have tried to respond three to five steps ahead of the situation. Every step of the way we’ve tried to come up with policies and protocols that will address the problem way ahead of time,” he says.


Dr. Saturnino “Bong” Javier of the Makati Medical Center
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This included timely and early implementation of protocols, and collaboration among trainees and doctors, across expertise and demographic. Led by Dr. Javier, these were done earlier than most, alongside the prohibition of elective procedures and out-patient clinics, all towards lessening the impact of the pandemic on hospital workers. And here’s where you realize why this kind of leadership is extraordinary in this context—at the heart of it is how much value it puts on our frontliners.


Speaking about the first surge of COVID-19 patients in March and April, Dr. Javier talks about caring for MCC’s health workers: “It was a burden on the psycho-social and emotional welfare of most of our medical professionals. So our psychiatry unit came up with programs to be able to connect, not just with our patients, but also with the medical professionals and healthcare workers. We came up with modules to address their psycho-social welfare, and Facebook groups were used to gather people with brewing psychological problems. This is a very important aspect of care.”


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In fact, it was also the hospital staff that he was concerned about with regards the Senatorial breach of hospital protocols. And in that instance, it was also objectivity that came into play. “We just adhered to the fact that we were on the side of truth, that what we are saying is true, that this is what really happened,” he recalls. “And we reassured everyone in the hospital that we did what we needed to do, and at the end of the day we were able to control the situation.”


This ability to assess a situation independent of emotions, to look at available information but even more so be grounded in the experience of his hospital professionals, is what lends credence to Dr. Javier’s words. Asked about what we could’ve done early into this pandemic, he goes back to February this year.


“We should have done many things which could have prepared us for the worst case scenario. From the first cases that we had in early February, up to the first documented community transmission in March, that was a month,” he reminds us. “I think that would’ve been a good time to stockpile on PPEs, on testing kits, on possible drugs that may be of value. It would’ve been a great opportunity to accredit and license many laboratories to perform the tests, because you can imagine during the first surge of the pandemic, it was only RITM which was accredited.”


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Asked about whether current health protocols for the public are enough, Dr Javier brings it all back to testing. “That mask will help. Social distancing will help. Hand hygiene will help.” Dr. Javier says. “But these measures should be augmented by the need to do the test if, and when, the need arises.”


The doctor minces no words. “If we don’t do as much testing as we should, we will miss out on the people who have no or mild symptoms, and therefore they will be able to transmit the infection to other individuals. That will not allow us to control the spread of the infection,” he explains. “So it’s really very important to do as many tests as possible. I think one of the things that was implemented by countries that handled the problem effectively was they kept on testing. I think that’s the way to go.”


Dr. Javier’s framework is so simple, but is tied completely to the need for access to testing, at any given time, for anyone who might need it, or who should get it. “I think the framework to adopt is we maintain a high level of suspicion. Anyone who develops symptoms, especially someone with some degree of exposure, we should have the capability to do the test.”


While he was one of many who sounded the call for the need for COVID-19 referral facilities early on, and who pushed for collaboration between public and private hospitals, all this also boils down to leadership. “I really want the government to ensure that it is on top of the situation in terms of many things. Regulating the supply chain of medicines, PPEs, testing kits. The capability to handle the surge of patients. Because it’s important we ensure collaboration among all sectors to be able to respond effectively to the demands of the pandemic,” Dr. Javier says. “I’m just glad that as we speak, this is somehow happening, and I hope although belatedly that this kind of collaboration will still be effective to confront what is going on, because it doesn’t seem to be stopping, it’s still going on, and every day is a new day in terms of coping with the demands of the pandemic.”


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And that includes the rest of us, this public that’s growing apprehensive by the day. There are behavioral shifts we need to accept as necessary, an assessment borne of Dr. Javier’s objectivity. “Filipinos are extremely sociable. They love to hug, they love to be extremely close to one another, we are extremely clannish. This is the time to temper that predilection. Because this is not a normal situation, so some kind of adaptation will have to take place.”


But also a vision for better, one that is grounded in the realities, as much as it remains hopeful about doing better. “Now that we’ve been through this pandemic, we should be able to learn from all of this, and we should really put all of this in formal documentation. Like a stress test of all that we’ve been through,” Dr. Javier says. “After the dust has settled, we should be able to process this, like do a post-mortem of what went wrong, where we succeeded, where we were effective, where we were not effective, and be able to harness this and use it for when the next pandemic comes.”


The restraint and objectivity, one realizes, is bound to a clear sense of data and information, but also a sense of reason. It is the voice we all wish we could hear from the highest seats of power at a time like this one. Thank heavens we hear it from leaders like Dr. Javier.


Photos courtesy of Dr. Saturnino Javier

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