Dec 13, 2021 10:17:56 AM Benjamin Pure

Struggling With Short Staffing in Healthcare? Here Are 3 Strategies to Cope With Labor Shortages

The COVID-19 outbreak was a true reality check for the entire medical community. One of the most apparent and grave consequences of the pandemic was understaffing. Healthcare facilities had already dealt with staff shortages before 2020, but the pandemic has pushed many of them into crisis. In the wake of coronavirus, hospitals in 25 states reported alarming staff scarcity, exactly when qualified workers were needed the most.

No matter how well-equipped or well-funded a hospital is, it won't be able to provide quality services to patients without trained professionals. And while there are several ways to address staffing shortage, many of them — like postponing elective surgeries or adding more beds — put patients at risk and result in healthcare quality going downhill. Mindful of that, we have come up with a few means that are far less drastic and involve taking small, affordable steps rather than overhauling your facility operations.

But first, let's consider why getting enough personnel on the job is essential for any healthcare business.

Dealing with medical staff shortages: Why it matters

The impact of having too few doctors and nurses seems obvious. A shortage of medical personnel limits your facility's capacity and, as a result, cuts into your revenue. Extended periods of excessive workloads strain and fatigue your employees and can negatively affect their health. Sleep loss, headache, depression, heart condition, diabetes, and joint pain are all common symptoms of overworking and by no means the most severe ones. 

High workloads have also been linked to destructive behaviors among staff, such as drug or alcohol abuse. The lack of work-life balance also negatively affects staff morale and is the main trigger for burnout and decreased employee engagement. These issues together increase the potential for medical errors and affect healthcare quality, especially in crises. 

It's not only about medical staff

As we can see, the outcomes of staff shortages for any hospital or practice can be disastrous. But what many healthcare managers fail to notice is that proper staffing is equally important for front- and back-office workers. Receptionists, for example, constitute the first touchpoint between a facility and its patients. As such, front desk workers play a crucial role in shaping a positive patient experience — but only if they aren't overwhelmed with work.

Even worse, if office staff can't handle excessive administrative tasks, these duties may overflow to medical personnel. You don't want to have your doctors and nurses spend time managing schedules or answering calls, but someone has to do it. And when that's the case, your personnel won't be the only party to face the consequences. For example, one study found a direct correlation between the number of patients assigned to one nurse and infection rates. When your employees suffer, your patients suffer!

The adverse impact of understaffing on any healthcare facility is blatantly apparent. To reduce it before it hurts patient outcomes, you need to act fast. Here are some suggestions on minimizing the disruption caused by staffing challenges and maintaining a high quality of care in your hospital or practice.

#1 Identify short-staffed departments

Before you start sharing job offers, you need to find the actual areas that require an additional workforce. Let's take a look at some of the most commonly understaffed positions in healthcare:

  • Front-office — Smaller practices don't always require full-time employees tasked with patient check-ins and check-outs. However, as your healthcare business grows, hiring dedicated front desk specialists becomes a necessity. Unless you introduce self-service solutions that allow patients to handle simpler tasks such as scheduling or check-ins independently, through patient portals and kiosks.
  • Phone staff — Answering inbound phone calls is as necessary as it is distracting. During peak hours, your medical and office employees may face a dilemma: pick up the phone or focus on the task at hand? You can resolve it in a couple of ways. One is to hire a part- or full-time patient service worker, which brings you back to the original issues of the competitive job market and limited hiring budget. Alternatively, you can opt for a medical call answering service. Medically-trained call answering agents will professionally handle all your inbound calls on a fraction of an in-house employee's salary. 
  • Medical assistants — If you're struggling to cope with both administrative and medical duties, medical assistants may be the answer. These generalists can perform various tasks, from filling medical records to preparing patients for basic medical procedures.

#2 Hire smart

Medical job boards, LinkedIn, and your website are all very effective when you want to communicate that you're looking for new talent. But there are many great alternatives to these traditional recruitment channels.

  • Reach out to your local medical schools and training programs. Some future graduates may look to secure a job or internship before finishing the course. This cooperation may even lead to a long-term partnership with the educational facility, guaranteeing you a steady inflow of potential candidates for years.
  • Look inwards. Some of your workers can be open to internal job openings but may be unaware of them. Be flexible — offer help with any additional training or certifications required to make the shift, for example, from front-desk worker to medical assistant. And stay open to remote work. As the pandemic fast-tracked adoption of telework, many healthcare-related roles have emerged that can be successfully delivered remotely. 
  • Look outwards. At the same time, there may be people outside the healthcare industry who're looking forward to an opportunity to make a career shift. Some may even be fully qualified — think school nurses or hospitality workers for maintenance or cooking in hospitals and nursing homes. Casting a wider net for diverse job candidates is often an efficient tactic to mitigate staff shortages in highly competitive job markets. 

#3 Outsource where possible

Who said you have to do all the job yourself? Certain tasks can be managed effectively and affordably by specialized external companies.

  • Payroll and billing — Due to safety standards and strict regulations, financial records require particular attention to detail. It's often easier and safer to outsource them to a professional service provider than to attend to them internally.
  • Specialized patient service — Sophisticated EMR systems like Epic can expedite almost all administrative processes in your practice, but they are hard to grasp at first. Hiring dedicated Epic agents eliminates the costs of training additional staff members.
  • IT services — Whether you need to migrate your data to the cloud, implement electronic health records or transition to a new a billing system, IT integration requires the expertise most medical staff lacks. Additionally, most software solutions involve ongoing maintenance and support. Trying to provide it internally is usually more laborious and costly than obtaining support from an external professional.