The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted challenges and opportunities for health systems to optimize workforce strategy and engagement. As the country braces for potential fall and winter surges, ensuring your workforce is flexible to respond to sudden changes in patient volume is vital.

“There are a lot of factors to consider that really impact workforce effectiveness. It encompasses everything from keeping employees safe with personal protective equipment to redeploying staff to high-volume areas to ensuring staff well-being,” says Marshall Leslie, managing principal, Vizient. “Any discussion about workforce quickly links to operations, the process of delivering care and quality outcomes.”

A shortage of qualified clinicians and staff is an industry-wide issue that has been exacerbated by COVID-19. In addition, hospital administrators must take into account overall industry trends such as increasing telehealth adoption and the migration of care into ambulatory settings.

“When you’re looking at your workforce, your plan needs to meet a lot of objectives,” says Eric Burch, principal, Vizient. “First, you need be able to provide the right care at the right time with the right staff. Also, your staffing plan must be economically feasible to meet organizational goals.”

To meet these objectives and be ready for a COVID-19 surge or other disruption, hospitals need to think about how to redesign care models and build flexible capacity. Below we outline three takeaways from COVID-19 for workforce deployment.

1. Cement partnerships with other providers

During COVID-19, consumer confidence became a big challenge for providers across the continuum of care. Concerned about the risk of COVID-19 exposure, patients delayed seeing providers for health screenings and chronic condition management. Emergency departments (EDs), skilled nursing facilities and post-acute care providers saw significant drops in volumes.

Building partnerships with ambulatory care providers and physician offices and creating access to care alternatives such as telehealth provides ways to continue to deliver care while also keeping patients and providers safe. Many organizations have also expanded home health competencies to enable patients to recover at home rather than in a post-acute care facility. For example, one organization increased their home health offering to include rehabilitative care at home when skilled and rehab post-acute care beds weren’t available. “It’s important to demonstrate a unified message related to the virus, utilizing CDC recommendations, PPE and testing criteria, across all providers in the continuum of care, not only to protect patients, but also to protect the workforce,” says Burch.

Burch also noted that ED volume has only recovered to about 60% or 70% of pre-COVID levels. Organizations should be actively communicating with the public through multiple channels about virtual care options and expanded clinic and urgent care hours to help meet the needs of the community .

2. Refine approaches to workforce management, testing and PPE supply

As COVID-19 took hold across the country in March and April, members rapidly adopted pandemic response protocols to handle the influx of patients and keep patients and staff safe. Providers developed policies and procedures around managing PPE, as well as testing, screening and contact tracing. To assure both the public and providers themselves of safety, a robust program of surveillance, including daily temperature checks upon entering the building and periodic virus testing, should be established in concert with recommendations by infectious diseases experts.

Organizations also made several workforce adjustments during the initial surge, including redeploying staff to high-volume departments, emergency credentialing of clinical staff, and using telehealth and remote monitoring to ease capacity and conserve supplies. Staff who could do their jobs from home shifted to remote work.

In case of a secondary wave of the virus, organizations should utilize a surge modeling tool to project increased patient levels as well as a PPE calculator to appropriately plan for the associated staff and supply requirements related to increases in infection rates.

In addition to patient care, the pandemic also highlighted the need to support the mental and physical well-being of staff and providers who have felt the impact of stress on their work and personal lives. “Organizations need to pay attention to the individual and understand that not everyone’s experience is the same. Have processes in place that check in with employees to assess their emotional and physical well-being. Workforce well-being is going to be important even over the next year or two as the clinical staff recovers from this experience,” says Burch.

3. Develop outreach strategies

Health systems must develop outreach strategies by partnering with local governments, testing centers and public health centers to better meet the needs of patients in the community. “A lot of organizations have developed outreach plans to show that they are a partner not only with other health care organizations, but with the entire local community,” says Burch. “You can further establish patient trust and goodwill by demonstrating how you’re responding to community needs and challenges related to COVID.”

Address hesitancy to seek in-person care by sharing how you are keeping patients, families and staff safe. Communicate about reopened clinical services and new alternatives for care, such as the virtual visits and drive-through flu shot programs.

Optimize Your Workforce for Future Disruption

Planning and preparation can mitigate a lot of the workforce challenges organizations experienced early in the pandemic. As organizations prepare for the next surge or disruption, Leslie encourages members to think beyond tactical changes, such as having adequate PPE on hand or redeploying staff. “We encourage members to look at systems that either failed or weren’t efficient in the crisis and pressure-test system changes in order to be better prepared for the next event,” he says.

For example, organizations should examine underlying systems around data that can provide real-time situational awareness. Actionable intelligence around productivity and patient volumes can help organizations make better decisions related to staffing and workforce deployment. “Data can provide a real-time operational view that can help drive day-to-day, shift-to-shift decisions,” adds Leslie.

To learn how Vizient’s Advisory Solutions can help your workforce better weather the next storm, click here.

Published: October 21, 2020