How to retain workers and maintain quality care

A look into post-pandemic healthcare staffing
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Demand for healthcare workers, particularly nurses, skyrocketed in 2020 as hospitals and other facilities increased staff to keep pace with the pandemic. Fastaff Travel Nursing, which provides experienced nurses to the most urgent and crucial situations nationwide, saw a 156% increase in requests for travel nurses last year. In Colorado alone, demand for travel nurses jumped by more than 550%.

Although COVID-19 cases are declining, the need for skilled healthcare professionals remains strong. I continue to hear from hospital administrators who worry that a potential surge in COVID numbers is on the horizon, fueled by the proliferation of new variants, which have been shown to be more contagious than the strain commonly found in the U.S. Vaccination efforts are also moving more slowly than anticipated and that, coupled with the easing of lockdown restrictions, could cause COVID-19 cases to creep up.

Beyond the pandemic, hospitals are still working their way through a backlog of surgeries and other procedures that were postponed because of the virus. In addition, many patients were unable to schedule cancer screenings or standard care for chronic conditions during the peak of the pandemic, increasing the chances of patients now visiting hospitals with complications or worsening illnesses.

There’s also concern that patients who have recovered from COVID may have lingering health issues that could put additional strain on the healthcare system.

“We are still working to understand the long-term effects that COVID-19 has on the heart specifically. We have seen that it can damage the muscle in even the youngest and healthiest of patients, so the increased need for cardiovascular care will continue nationwide for some time,” said Dr. Lou Vadlamani, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of CardioSolutions.

All of these factors indicate that demand for health care workers won’t subside anytime soon.

Here’s a look at how hospitals can stay ahead of staffing trends and retain critical workers this year.

Plan ahead. The pandemic revealed just how dangerous it is to be unprepared. Anticipating shortfalls and planning accordingly will be key. Right now, it looks like demand will be highest for critical care, operating room and medical surgical nurses between, so ramping up in those specialties will help hiring managers avoid scrambling later.

Maximize existing staff. This can be particularly important when occupancy levels rise and stay high for a sustained period of time as they did last year. We saw hospitals shut down specialty units when they became deluged with COVID patients. If faced with the same scenario, instead of furloughing specialty nurses in units that are underutilized, administrators should deploy them to help nurses in other areas with time-consuming tasks such as taking vital signs and assisting with patient self-care. It’s really about tapping that specialty nurse’s skill level to help another nurse who might be handling 10 patients.

Emphasize safety. Healthcare workers want to know they’re being protected. In addition to ensuring adequate PPE levels, continuing to provide training on best practices for infection prevention will be key. COVID-19 has also caused us to reexamine how we sanitize workplaces in general. I expect we’ll see hospitals looking more closely at infrastructure improvements to further improve safety.

Offer emotional support. The pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on healthcare workers. Ninety-three percent of healthcare workers surveyed by Mental Health America between June and September 2020 said they were stressed out and stretched too thin, while 75% reported exhaustion and burnout It’s important to encourage staff to use paid time off to recharge even when healthcare demands are high. Adding temporary nurses is one way to give existing staff a break without sacrificing quality care. Strengthening Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) offerings is also crucial, as is reminding nurses that those resources are available.

Keep an eye on labor negotiations. If you’re operating a unionized facility, a potential strike is always something to take into account. Even in the midst of the pandemic, Fastaff provided nurses on short notice to facilities experiencing strikes in Illinois and California. It’s always better to have a contingency plan than to be surprised by a walk-out, so consider how you would supplement staff if a strike occurred. Our sister company U.S. Nursing moved to virtual inductions during strikes in 2020 to minimize spread and risk to replacement workers, so there are many ways to plan ahead and keep people safe.

Explore partnerships. Last year, we saw a number of private and public entities join forces to deliver care faster. Certification agencies, for example, worked with facilities to ease credentialing requirements to get nurses into the field quickly. We also saw manufacturers shift gears to increase production of PPE. These types of efforts need to continue to ensure effective health care delivery. Getting your supply chains connected both in terms of equipment and people, will be vital.

Staffing effectively is always challenging, but the pandemic magnified the issues involved in the process. My hope is that hospital administrators will continue to share information and lessons learned, so we can plan better for the future.

Kathy Kohnke Kathy Kohnke is the Senior Vice President of Client Services at Fastaff working with hospitals toward the delivery of productive workforce management solutions that enhance patient care and improve the financial performance of her clients. She has extensive expertise in the areas of recruitment, staffing and workforce management with specialized knowledge in labor productivity and staffing technologies to aid hospitals in the management of labor costs.

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