Mark Pelletier anticipated a rewarding career helping others in health care when he left Mennonite College of Nursing as one of few male graduates in 1981. What he never envisioned was holding a national leadership position of hospital oversight during a time of a national pandemic.

Pelletier is the chief operating officer and chief nurse executive at the Joint Commission, headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace. The nonprofit, established in 1951, is the nation’s oldest accreditation and certification agency for health care organizations, overseeing more than 21,000 health care organizations and programs nationwide. Health care organizations need accreditation to continue receiving federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid.

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Pelletier has worked in a variety of clinical and administrative capacities throughout the Chicagoland area.  He earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nursing at DePaul University. He spent more than 25 years as a health care executive prior to joining the Joint Commission in 2009, where he has been a part of a culture change that is just as focused on finding solutions as it is on identifying problems.

A hospital ventilator.
Pelletier lobbies for hospitals to have proper pandemic equipment.

He’s taken that to heart in tackling the coronavirus (COVID-19) from a national vantage point. Pelletier’s professional experience empowers him to understand the struggles health care providers have faced while battling the pandemic. He has spent the past several months addressing the needs of health care organizations in the fight against the virus, which became the third leading cause of death in the U.S. during August.  This has included advocating for sufficient personal protection equipment (PPE) for health care workers.

“There is no way I could have responded to this without my nursing background,” Pelletier said.

The Joint Commission ceased onsite surveys on March 14in order to keep its own employees safe and to allow health care organizations to focus on their response to COVID patients.  It was not until June that certain areas were at low enough risk to partially resume surveys.

During the period from mid-March through May, the Joint Commission shifted its efforts to advocating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), and Congress for desperately needed resources.

“The Joint Commission’s role is to provide valuable feedback to federal agencies regarding the pandemic’s impact on patients, families, and communities,” Pelletier said.

A survey of Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America network hospitals released in June showed that 40 percent had shortages of respirators for health care workers at limited or crisis levels, 68 percent used or were planning to use strategies to stretch their respirator supply, and 13 percent were self-producing PPE and testing supplies.

“We have known for years that if this nation were ever faced with a pandemic of this magnitude, we would be insufficiently prepared with gloves, masks, and other PPE,” Pelletier said. “And that’s what we’ve been experiencing throughout this country.”

He noted that China and Germany manufacture much of the United States’ PPE supply. China—the epicenter of the virus—was in a shutdown of its own, while Germany was concerned about providing for its own hospitals. In addition, quarantined citizens were unknowingly using equipment typically reserved for hospital usage.

“At the beginning of this, no one was well-informed about appropriate protection,” Pelletier said. “As a result, we had the public taking needed resources away from providers.”

Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America network hospitals survey of adequate PPE supplies


Shortages of respirators


Strategized plans to stretch respirator supply


Self-produced PPE and testing supplies

With the pandemic still raging on, the Joint Commission is limited in how many areas it can resume onsite surveys. However, thanks to a virtual review process and continuous touchpoints with customers, Pelletier and his team have gotten a glimpse as to how the industry can change post-pandemic.

According to research published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity in August, 20 percent of health care professionals have reported symptoms of depression during the pandemic. Nearly 40 percent experienced sleeping difficulties and/or insomnia.

The Joint Commission has also used its influence to strengthen stances taken by hospital workers regarding mental health. In early May, it published a position statement defending the removal of barriers to mental health treatment for health care staff.  Currently, some states require organizations to ask clinical staff about previous histories of mental health or treatment.  The Joint Commission was quick to back recommendations limiting these inquiries, realizing that health care providers need emotional support now more than ever.

First of all, Pelletier stresses the importance of the entire world being prepared for a similar event in the future.  He also said telemedicine has “blown the doors open” as to what change can look like. It opens up avenues for rural care as well as patients who can’t get out of their homes. In addition, CMS has agreed on expansion of telemedicine services and reimbursement.

The use of such technology may also affect care for the elderly, which is a segment of the population especially hard-hit by the virus. Elder care has been put under a microscope, as more than 40 percent of all COVID-19 deaths have been linked to nursing homes, according to the New York Times. More at-home care would allow for older citizens to receive the help they need from the comfort of their own homes while being isolated from fellow vulnerable members of society.

The virus has shown how quickly it can spread in contained areas, which Pelletier predicts could lead to a change in the basic structure of hospitals. He noted how a patient with a broken leg wouldn’t be keen on sharing a waiting room with someone potentially carrying an infectious disease. Health care systems consequently need to prepare for such patient concerns.

One silver lining has been an opportunity for nurse practitioners to shine as they use their skills to guide patients and their families through the realities of a world with COVID-19.

“Health care workers have been in the spotlight from the start, and folks are finally recognizing that these are our heroes,” Pelletier said. “What they give up in order to take care of patients and families can’t be overstated.”

He is proud of his alma mater and the fact that Mennonite College of Nursing is recognized nationally as a leader in preparing the next generation of providers, teachers, and administrators in health care. He recently committed to a $1.2 million estate gift and a $100,000 cash commitment to establish the Mark Pelletier Fund for Faculty, which will support faculty development in the nursing school and train future leaders in the industry.  Even amid the unforeseen stresses felt throughout the field during the pandemic, Pelletier considers it a particularly exciting time to enter the profession.

“This is a great time to become a nurse,” Pelletier said. “Right now, we are seeing an acceleration in innovation. I think there is an ability for nursing graduates to help shape what health care looks like in the future and beyond. We aren’t going back—it’s going to be a different world.”