MedCity Influencers, Consumer / Employer

The state of the healthcare workforce is both a catalyst for change and a hindrance

While many leading health systems are working to hire and train aggressively, there will be a point when money will no longer matter and all the incentives in the world won’t be enough to attract or retain talent. That’s why most clinicians, IT leaders and administrators are dedicating more time, money, and effort in adopting technology and rearchitecting care models.

I’ve been speaking with many healthcare leaders lately and the standout trend – and worry – is the dwindling size and strength of the workforce amid surging patient demands. While not surprising, it’s interesting because this is by no means a new trend. It’s not necessarily a consequence of the pandemic either, even though that’s where the finger is often pointed.

The pandemic compelled noticeable action by clinicians who have been burned out, frustrated, or afraid of making mistakes for years, namely “The Great Resignation.” As such, the focus for the remainder of 2022 will remain squarely on how to retain, rebuild and reinvigorate the workforce.

Why is this deemed the priority instead of health equity, cost reductions or better patient experiences? Because labor shortages are a rate limiter to growth, and the more sweeping changes needed in healthcare all have a dotted line back to “operational capacity” and “worker capability.”

You can’t improve care access and quality if there aren’t enough people to staff new buildings or deliver new, expanded services. Nor can you reduce costs when you’re paying a premium to recruit and retain labor to staff existing buildings and sustain current services. Plus, long lines for everything from routine checkups and medication refills to lab testing and emergency interventions are overwhelming staff, resulting in more resignations and even longer lines – and more unhappy patients and employees. It’s a fierce cycle that must be broken.

So, leaders hope that prioritizing workforce expansion – or at least stabilization and augmentation – will do the trick.

Three ways to increase clinical capacity

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Those who want to serve more patients, offer more services, reduce costs, or provide equal and expanded access to quality care can solve staffing and skills shortages in a few ways. They can:

  1. turn to technology to augment both clinical and non-clinical staff and automate workflows, which can help unburden the delivery of care regardless of how many people are on the clock or how many patients must be seen.
  2. completely rearchitect care models to redistribute services across their campuses or possibly even off campus.
  3. simply hire and train aggressively.

While many leading health systems are working on the latter, there will be a point when money will no longer matter and all the incentives in the world won’t be enough to attract or retain talent. A fundamental culture change must be visible for burned out healthcare professionals to stick around or come back and for students to feel compelled to pursue a healthcare career. That’s why most clinicians, IT leaders and administrators are dedicating more time, money, and effort to the first two options.

The faster they can digitally mature healthcare information, communication, and workflow systems, the sooner they’ll see efficiency gains – even if they don’t hire a single person. In fact, nine-in-10 hospital leaders who participated in a recent global study agreed the quality of patient care would improve if nurses, clinicians and ancillary, non-clinical healthcare workers had access to collaboration tools and healthcare applications. More specifically, they felt “real-time intelligence is essential for optimal patient care.” 

That may come in the form of clinical mobility solutions that allow for instant communication across care teams and access to patient records or real-time location systems (RTLS) and intelligent software solutions that provide actionable insights and prescriptive guidance. Executives also indicate that artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and advanced Internet of Things (IoT) platforms will become more prevalent as they aim to automate data capture, information flows, and even decision-making – all of which can save time and energy in clinical and non-clinical workflows.

Yet, for technology to be a true solution to today’s workforce problem, it must be simple to deploy, configure, secure, and manage. Otherwise, it will just compound the issue while also burdening IT teams. If it takes a lot of resources to design, test, implement, or maintain solutions, the return on investment (ROI) could fall flat, if the projects even get off the ground at all.

That’s why decision-makers increasingly opt for hardware and software solutions designed specifically for healthcare applications. They know the move to 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will require significant infrastructure overhauls and, depending on the age of their legacy systems, they may need to rip, replace, or rebuild their entire technology architecture to enable widespread digitalization and automation. Therefore, they’ll look for technology platforms that lighten the load and deliver fast wins.

Outsourcing to offset shortages

Understandably, undertaking any type of digital transformation right now might seem impossible to those constrained from a financial or workforce perspective, even if some sort of drastic change is necessary. So, some healthcare leaders are looking outside their four walls for ways to deliver the quality care people need and expect. We’re already seeing more minute clinics pop up in drug stores, grocery stores and even corporate workplaces, and home health offerings are growing, even though patients have the option to resume clinical visits. But expect some resistance to the “retailization of healthcare.” Not everyone is sold on the idea that this is the solution to the labor issue.

There’s certainly a convenience factor for patients who can make one stop at the store and get everything they need, including a consultation. And providing equitable access to care becomes less of an issue when in-person or virtual clinics can be hosted at local recreation centers, especially in rural areas where it may not make sense to open full-scale medical centers. However, you still need skilled people to provide these services. You also need certain technology capabilities to ensure access to patient information in digital health devices and electronic medical records (EMR), which is key to the continuity of care – and the delivery of quality care – when there isn’t physician consistency.

Besides, you can’t outsource emergency care or surgeries to retail and community sites. So, these hybrid care models and community alliances won’t be enough to make the labor issue a non-issue. There will always be a need to augment the healthcare workforce with technology.

Technology is the change agent 

Though we may see an imbalance between staff and patient headcounts for a while, that does not mean healthcare capacity must forever remain disproportionate with demand. If clinicians can see twice as many patients in a day without getting overwhelmed or making mistakes simply because we change workflow structures and increase technology utilization, then it won’t matter if hiring comes to a standstill. Everyone will get what they want:

  • Patients will be able to access quality care without having to travel far or wait for hours (or months).
  • Clinicians and other staff will feel productive, valued, and satisfied with their jobs, and encourage others to come work with them.
  • Administrators will be able to operate more facilities and offer more services without worrying about delays, disruptions, or degradation in patient experiences, resulting in better margins.

Therefore, healthcare leaders will evolve care models to meet both patients and providers where they are, and they’ll aggressively invest in technology to facilitate care within those models. The hope is that this will right-size the workforce – or at least increase care capacity in parallel with demand leading to improved patient outcomes and experiences.

Rikki Jennings, BSN, RN, CPN is the Chief Nursing Informatics Officer (CNIO) at Zebra Technologies where she is responsible for combining her knowledge of patient care, informatics concepts, and change management to effectively address the information and knowledge needs of healthcare professionals and patients to promote safe, effective, and efficient use of IT in clinical settings. She also serves as the strategic liaison for health IT efforts representing nursing and clinician needs. Over the past several years, her work in the healthcare IT industry has provided her an in-depth knowledge of the workflows and utilization of clinical technologies including clinical communication systems, bedside technology solutions, and data analytics tools in hospitals across the country. In 2019, Rikki was recognized in Crain’s Chicago Business’ Notable Women in Healthcare list. Rikki holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from University of Iowa.