By Rice Powell, Former Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Management Board of Fresenius Medical Care
I caught the last flight out of Frankfurt on a Friday in March. The airport was unnaturally quiet, the flight surprisingly calm. But as soon as we landed in Boston, my phone lit up. “Rice,” a friend said, “get ready. There are decisions to be made.” As the CEO of Fresenius Medical Care, I am responsible for 350,000 patients. They suffer from end-stage kidney disease, need regular dialysis to survive, and are generally older and less healthy than the average population.
With COVID-19 spreading like wildfire, our patients needed to get tested quickly. Those infected would have to move to clinics with even stricter safety precautions. It was a daunting logistical challenge, and we needed to join forces to solve it. In the U.S., working with competitors requires permission from the government and I spent hours on the phone to make this happen.
Officials needed to understand our position. One of the first things we noticed was a spike in the price for protective gear. We used to buy simple blue face masks for one Eurocent – suddenly we were paying 14. Then the schools and childcare centers closed. Many of our nurses suddenly had tough decisions to make: Should they come to work and care for their patients or stay home and care for their children. In the U.S. for example, we gave out stipends for child- and eldercare. The nursing staff at the clinics for infected patients also received a premium. After all, they were going into a high-risk zone every day. But the phones never stopped ringing. People didn’t want to leave the house anymore and we were overrun by requests for home dialysis. Hospitals called because they needed acute dialysis machines, chronic hemodialysis machines, and lung replacement therapy consoles. Just when governments decided on lockdowns, we had to ramp up production by up to 200 percent and organize deliveries to all corners of the world.
Amid uncertainty and fear, the people of Fresenius Medical Care showed that "Care" is not just a word in our name, but a principle that holds up under pressure.
Time to Think
Today I am writing from my home office outside of Boston. Before COVID-19, I traveled frequently but now I have worked from this desk since the pandemic began, with my dogs at my feet. They bark from time to time, adding atmosphere to my video calls. The isolation has given me time to think. What started as a hectic emergency has calmed down, opening up time to reflect.
COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down, but it has also proven our company’s resilience. Our global network allowed us to learn from those the pandemic hit first. Employees in China passed on their experiences to their peers in Europe who in turn passed it on to the U.S. and then Latin America, making us better prepared each time. Knowledge spread faster than the virus giving us an edge.
We also benefited from our vertical integration. When an unprecedented number of patients demanded home dialysis, and public policies all over the world aligned to support them1, we had the infrastructure in place to deliver: A suite of best-in-class home products, a working supply chain we could quickly scale up, tens of thousands of employees that rallied around home therapies, and thousands of training rooms where nurses, dietitians, and social workers could educate patients.2 The same was true when we rapidly expanded our digital and telehealth options so physicians could consult patients remotely.3
We will continue to evolve this approach. The goal is to treat renal patients through every step of their treatment path. We will reach out to patients who are not on dialysis but may need it in the future to slow down the disease's progression. We will use artificial intelligence and big data to create individualized therapies, so patients spend less time in the hospital and enjoy a better quality of life. We will assist people who receive new kidneys and help them through the process. And because our products for acute kidney failure and acute respiratory failure saved many lives during the pandemic, we will expand our critical care medicine portfolio. Overall, we want to create the future of health care for chronically and critically ill patients across the renal care continuum and beyond.4
When the pressure is on, problems get solved
Since that fateful Friday in March, I haven't been back to our headquarters in Bad Homburg, Germany. I miss my colleagues and friends, but whenever I am about to come down with cabin fever, I remind myself how unbelievably lucky we are. My family and elder parents-in-law are doing well. I can go for walks with the dogs, and my daughters have decorated the house for the holidays.
I am so proud of the way we handled this. The pandemic was, and still is, a global storm that shook us, from our clinics to our offices, our supply chains, to our production sites. It was and still is a threat to everybody we care for, our patients in the dialysis clinics, and the millions who depend on us. But amid uncertainty and fear, the people of Fresenius Medical Care stepped up to do their part, and many did a lot more. They showed that “Care” is not just a word in our name, but a principle that holds up under pressure.
Taking care is a team effort, and our partners also supported our patients in a big way. From the government officials that supported us to the truck drivers who ventured out when nobody else would, I encountered bursts of goodwill and bravery in these otherwise dark months. People often talk about our political divisions. These experiences have shown me something different: When the pressure is on, problems are solved. I am confident we can carry this mindset into the new year.
1 Cf. FME_CMD2020_Workshop_Home_TP. There they talk more specifically about “over 70,000 employees” and “3,000 training rooms”. But those numbers are for North America only, and it doesn’t make much sense to limit the scope of an article about a global company in a pandemic to one or two countries. Therefore, even if “thousands” and “tens of thousands” are a little vague, I believe the vagueness works to our advantage and it suits the style of this personal account.
2 Cf. FME_CMD2020_Workshop_Home_TP
3 Cf. Washington Post Article with CEO Rice Powell
4 Cf. FME_CMD2020_Presentation_CEO_TP, p. 20-21