The pandemic shed bright light on the work ethic, courage, and heroism of these often ignored and underappreciated professionals. At the same time, it exposed our unprepared health systems, which revealed the fragility, vulnerabilities and unique dangers of working in this environment. The main one was the eroded ability to care for patients when there were staff availability issues.
As infection and hospitalization rates drop and mass vaccination begins, the crisis and demand will diminish. There is every reason for hope and optimism. Hospitals and their workers should celebrate their collaborative contributions to this positive outcome.
This is the beginning and there is so much more to do
There is an opportunity and a challenge to learn lessons, innovate, evolve and address the problems that arise from the pandemic that are here to stay, willing to put more pressure, reform and transform our system.
We should not wait until the world is completely healed before facing this challenge. I have outlined six areas that I firmly believe require action now, as a community, to address these vulnerabilities and help ensure a better future for healthcare systems, professionals, and most importantly, our patients.
The rising cost of talent for healthcare professionals
Our nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, and everyone who makes our system work deserve equitable compensation. As such, it will increase its value and demand for talent, and with it the cost of hiring, training and retaining a healthcare workforce. What the pandemic has taught us is that many hospitals have financial difficulties during an increase in community health needs. Although COVID-19 was an acute case, we are facing an aging population that is the sickest generation that has ever lived. Hospitals and health systems must continue to grow and without health professionals they cannot.
Most hospitals are non-profit organizations and service providers need to play some role in helping them grow during the crisis. What many people don’t know is the big role the healthcare industry plays in the success of hospitals in attracting and retaining workers. During the pandemic, this was widely exposed. Some organizations partnered with hospitals to obtain price concessions. Others do not. Some were transparent about market demands and others were not. To move forward, the healthcare industry needs to create greater price transparency and work with its partners on staffing solutions that are fair to healthcare workers, healthcare organizations and themselves.
A tired workforce
After the events of this past year, health workers are emotionally and physically tired. We need to introduce policies and practices and create resources to improve the well-being of our doctors. Some major examples of this throughout the pandemic were some hospitals and health care organizations that established a COVID-19 hotline and other educational offerings for those who care for our patients. This kind of support for the workers who fight for us is needed more than ever today and in the future.
We cannot let this trend end the pandemic. Our healthcare staff needs ongoing emotional and physical support. Policies and programs need to be formed to provide and encourage this infrastructure.
Employee retention and new talent
Market demands and changing labor force mobility can present challenges to employee retention. In addition, the pandemic has exposed gaps throughout the life cycle of employee management for many institutions.
This is an area where data can help provide customized solutions or what we have called a “prescriptive approach”. We have seen first hand the value of this approach over the last twelve months. Demands for hospital staff have changed rapidly and one-size-fits-all solutions have failed. The stick has to change. Our goal should not be to place doctors on the floor as soon as possible. This is short-sighted. We need to look for the type of talent that best suits the immediate and long-term needs of the organization. They can be contingent, self-employed, direct contracts or any other type of talent placement.
The pandemic has also exposed leadership shortcomings and new leadership skills are needed to manage and adapt to a crisis. There are likely to be intangible and tangible leadership qualities that candidates must show. We need to understand how to quantify these qualities and the data can help us.
An emerging digital template
The pandemic, a time of blockages and limited personal contact, triggered an explosion of telemedicine that is here to stay. Adapting to this environment from the care environment has unique challenges. There are new technological barriers that potentially need to be addressed with a more mobile workforce.
Healthcare systems should work to achieve a balance between doctor-patient interaction in person or through telehealth devices and have medical professionals who are equipped to manage both.
The impact on patient safety
COVID-19 has generated new and unique health hazards. Many hospitals and healthcare organizations were forced to adapt and address these new challenges in real time. Because security is, and always will be, the top priority of these organizations, the proposed solutions must complement this mission with integrated guidelines and benchmarks.
Data-based analytics is the key to attracting and developing talent groups to support organizations that need it. These statistics and analyzes draw a more complete and authentic picture that monitors real-world safety and efficiency indicators to track progress and make real-time decisions as needed.
Expanding access to talent
A major problem that arose during the pandemic is the inability of health care workers to work across state lines. That needs to change. Right now, two key elements of the pending legislation would allow for the granting of national licenses and relinquish the limitations that prohibited state-licensed clinicians from crossing borders. Politicians needed a pandemic to realize the value of a national license, but that value will extend far beyond that moment. Not only will it allow for a better response to emergency and public health crises, but it can also help ensure equitable care across the United States.
Even before the pandemic, some regions have seen significant shortages of doctors and nurses, while others have enjoyed adequate manpower. This will not stop when the pandemic ends. Healthcare professionals need the flexibility to provide care where they are most needed, not just where they are licensed. We know it works as demonstrated by interstate agreements. We now need national legislation to unleash our full potential.
We are not yet near the end of this pandemic, but we are on the right track. Our industry has the opportunity to demonstrate the progress that can be made by putting integrity at the center of all the decisions we make. And I think if we continue to challenge ourselves to innovate and really pay attention to last year’s lessons, we will turn this pandemic around and transform our system at the same time.
Kevin C. Clark is co-founder and CEO of Cross Country Healthcare.