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Post-Pandemic: How Healthcare Organizations Can Aim for 'Better than Before'
The COVID-19 pandemic indisputably left scars on the American healthcare system. It created immense challenges for healthcare organizations (HCOs) and their staff. Plus, the stresses of the pandemic left many healthcare professionals feeling battered, if not outright traumatized. It also exposed many financial gaps and vulnerabilities in the groups delivering care. “Many organizations are still recovering from the financial hardship of the pandemic,” says Aarika Cofer, Vice President of Heisenberg II at Hallmark Health Care Solutions. “For many, they may even be facing their worst financial state in 20 years.”
However, as we move into a post-pandemic world, new opportunities to do better than before are emerging. The pandemic was bruising, but it also changed the trajectory of healthcare in the U.S. – and possibly for the better. As researchers from the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy wrote: “There is no reason to go back to the system we had before, and this is an ideal time to build something better. But the window is already closing. Without continued momentum, organizations risk reverting to ‘business as usual.’”
Creating that momentum requires implementing new and forward-looking strategies and tools like the following.
1: Innovate workforce planning and optimization.
Most HCOs are still struggling with staffing problems either triggered by, or if pre-existing, worsened by, the pandemic. Over 300,000 providers – nurses, APPs, physicians, and others – left the workforce in 2021 alone. Some of those are now returning, but among nurses, nearly a million more have still indicated intent to leave by 2027. That’s because two-thirds of clinicians have faced an increase in workload and half have been left feeling drained and “used up.” “Since before the pandemic, there has been an increase in provider retirements and transitions into other fields of work,” says Cofer. “The pandemic accelerated this resignation movement and left existing providers, from nurses to physicians, to pick up the increased workload. This is resulting in strained resources, disengaged providers, and staff burnout.”
Dealing with this situation requires creative thinking around compensation and employment practices. Innovation in staffing models – such as utilizing advanced practice providers, telehealth resources, and new clinical workforce models – can not only optimize patient care delivery but also make it easier to recruit. To some extent, this innovation has already happened; it’s just a matter of formalizing it. “Staff desire for a flexible work schedule will likely never go back to its pre-pandemic state,” says Michelle Sanchez-Bickley, Chief People Executive for Einstein II at Hallmark Health Care Solutions. She notes that all types of staff experienced unprecedented ways to work during the pandemic. “Many realized that they enjoy the flexible work model.”
Sanchez-Bickley says that hospitals now have an opportunity to create their own internal agencies or otherwise adopt the flexible work models now desired by clinicians. This can potentially lower labor costs by reducing the need for managed staffing providers, while also creating a pathway for HCOs to differentiate themselves from the rest of the market and attract providers who are specifically seeking flexibility.
Similarly, HCOs should also invest in their workforce through strategic compensation. For example, HCOs can develop opportunities where providers can earn non-clinical pay as well as leadership experience. Using technology to be transparent about compensation, market benchmarking, and levels of performance can also increase provider satisfaction, performance, and retention.
2: Prioritize staff well-being and resilience.
Putting renewed emphasis on provider experience can also be a powerful way to boost recruitment and retention to better-than-before levels, even when faced with talent shortfalls. “Over the past decade, competition within healthcare has slowly shifted from being mainly about ‘competing for market share’ to being mainly about ‘becoming the employer of choice’ for high-quality providers within a given geography,” Daniel Durand, MD, Chief Clinical Officer at LifeBridge Health in Baltimore, told Becker’s Hospital Review.
Cofer says the renewed emphasis on staff experience and engagement is key to becoming an employer of choice. In particular, HCOs need to find ways to deal with increases in demand and workload in order to mitigate burnout and turnover. Assess staffing needs based on increased patient demand and strive to maintain appropriate staffing levels. That can help to prevent excessive workloads and unnecessary overtime. Then, implement retention programs that focus on employee satisfaction, professional development, and work-life balance.
Taking these steps is not necessarily as difficult as it might seem. “Kindness and grace go a long way,” says Sanchez-Bickley. “Lead with conviction, but an open ear with true listening to staff. These are not new concepts, but they can get lost in the shuffle.”
3: Now, more than ever, embrace technology.
Even the best strategies are doomed if they cannot be executed and operationalized effectively, and better-than-before is not possible without implementing new tools, capabilities, and approaches. That’s where technology comes into play, including:
- Telehealth and virtual care solutions to enhance access to care and accommodate increased patient visits.
- Automation and AI solutions to streamline administrative tasks.
- Moving beyond Excel into more sophisticated platforms for managing compensation and the workforce.
Technologies like these not only enable a reduction in manual labor – giving administrators the ability to achieve more in less time with less manpower – but they also let those administrators focus on higher-priority tasks and more strategic objectives. That includes allowing healthcare professionals to focus more fully on patient care. More advanced technology also enables organizations to implement and strengthen data-driven decision-making and to better identify areas for improvement, like optimizing resource allocation.
Better-than-before requires action, today.
The strategies detailed above require active investment and intentional decision-making. Otherwise, sheer inertia will pull organizations back into old patterns and ways of thinking that may not be equal to dealing with the enormous financial pressures and clinical strains now being placed on providers throughout the healthcare space.
So, the post-pandemic landscape will still be full of challenges, but as the Duke-Margolis researchers also wrote, it is also offering “a critical opportunity to create a ‘new normal’ — one that not only considers the continuing health and economic realities of COVID-19, but also reflects the insights and best practices gained during the pandemic.”