Since the first wave of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – better known as COVID-19 –swept the nation in March 2020, the pandemic has had a profound effect not only on the nation’s health but also on its economy. leaving hospitals and clinics struggling to stay afloat.¹ Eighteen months in, one of the most pressing challenges hospitals are facing is a severe staffing shortage.
The nation’s medical systems are so overwhelmed that on September 2 of this year, The American Nurses Association requested² the Department of Health and Human Services to declare a national crisis regarding the ongoing nursing shortage. The professional association noted that the summer 2021 surge of the Delta variant of the virus had pushed an already-chronic problem into crisis mode, putting patients at risk.³
In August of this year, nearly 70% of Florida hospitals 4 were experiencing critical staffing shortages as they were reaching full capacity. Medical facilities across the nation were limiting elective, non-emergency surgeries 5 and procedures.
As cases continued to flood in, hospitals have had to respond to staffing shortages while still providing ongoing and acute care for COVID-19 patients, emergency room visitors, and those with chronic conditions. At the same time, limited talent pools and intense competition forced some hospitals to recruit medical and nursing students and to hire short-term contract healthcare workers.
In the early days of the pandemic, states with lower infection rates could send qualified medical professionals to virus hotspots, where rates skyrocketed beyond what local providers could manage. The phenomenon of transient, “traveling” medical professionals became a significant occupational niche. Nurses, doctors, and specialists traveled to hard-hit pandemic cities to help mitigate infection rates and staffing shortages.
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Now, 18 months later, virtually every state has experienced the same labor shortages, with no end in sight. With hospitals “at a breaking point,” the State of Texas is funding more than 8000 contract health workers to supplement the state’s hospitals in light of the most recent COVID-19 surge, according to a recent news article. 6 The ICU units in at least 95 Texas hospitals filled to capacity by mid-August.
The need for trained medical professionals has soared. However, the demand for skilled nurses has arguably seen the most growth, as hospitals and medical clinics fill with sick and injured patients.
In an attempt to entice trained nurses, hospitals have expanded their staffing budgets to offer as much as $8,000 to $10,000 per week 7 to attract qualified individuals. The high salaries may address clinics’ short-term needs. Still, most hospitals don’t have the resources to create an effective staffing strategy due to the overwhelming number of patients in clinics across the country.
With some experts claiming that the healthcare industry will continue to experience chronic staffing shortages following the pandemic, medical clinics have begun to adopt more efficient, innovative strategies. These post-pandemic adaptations should allow clinics to deliver care with fewer staff members. At the same time, patients can minimize their risk for exposure while receiving care for minor illnesses or chronic conditions.
How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacted the Healthcare Industry
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the healthcare industry on nearly every front. Each time cases rise, they leave hospitals reeling. ICU departments fill quickly, forcing hospitals to add extra beds in operating rooms, hallways, and even parking garages.
ICU nurses in some areas of the country experienced a 300-400% increase in the average staff-to-patient ratio, while facilities dealt with devastating equipment and drug shortages as well. At the same time, clinics sent home entry-level staff members, such as dental assistants, medical assistants, and pharmacy technicians, to comply with social distancing rules.
The results of the pandemic extended beyond healthcare professionals, too. Patients began to cancel or postpone appointments with their doctors as they avoided going out and possibly exposing themselves in public places. Many hospitals have enacted mandatory delays in elective surgeries as their emergency and operating departments, stretched to their limits, struggled to provide adequate care to both COVID and non-COVID patients.
In a November 2020 interview with The New York Times, 8 an emergency room nurse confirmed the cascade that had followed the most recent COVID-19 surge. Patients who entered the ER for non-COVID reasons were often staying there for days because all ICU beds were full. With most nurses tending to COVID patients, other patients suffered from delays in care and mishaps like bedsores or falls.
Even more alarmingly, many professionals now worry that there won’t be enough healthcare providers available when the country emerges from the throes of the virus. In fact, a study noted that the United States would need to fill more than 500,000 healthcare jobs 9 to return to a pre-pandemic “normal.”
With this in mind, medical clinics face complex challenges, including plans to recruit and train new staff members quickly, ways to support current employees, and how they can transition efficiently and effectively to remote care without sacrificing quality, communication, and patient engagement.
The New Normal: Innovative Approaches to Healthcare Staffing
If the COVID-19 pandemic has proven anything, it’s that medical clinics can never be too prepared. The pandemic revealed critical shortages in staffing, equipment, and drugs that won’t disappear overnight. Because of this, many facilities had to enact crisis standards of care, 10 which set guidelines to determine which patients will receive care when resources – including nurses, ventilators, and medicine – become scarce.
Still, as medical clinics begin to contemplate the future, many have turned to innovative approaches to patient care and staff management, such as the following.
Telemedicine is a relatively new addition to the healthcare industry. Even so, some medical clinics have used it to their advantage, especially during the pandemic. For example, a Utah-based network of clinics and hospitals has distributed patients throughout smaller practices. After placing a patient, they use virtual monitoring and telehealth services to connect specialists with general practitioners (GPs).
At the same time, GPs can use telemedicine to conduct routine appointments with patients. Virtual healthcare has exploded during the pandemic, and many agree that telemedicine will grow even more popular 11 with patients in both rural and urban locations.
This convenient approach to healthcare allows patients to connect with local doctors or long-distance specialists to address chronic conditions, receive care for minor illnesses like the cold or flu, and obtain prescriptions without leaving their homes. Healthcare providers may work from remote locations as well, reducing their risk of exposure while improving productivity and job satisfaction rates.
2. Creative Approaches to Staffing
Medical clinics and hospitals have taken creative approaches to staffing in order to stay afloat. Some facilities have recruited family doctors and primary care physicians to bolster the ranks. Others have turned to civilians with basic healthcare experience to oversee minor tasks in which skilled medical care is not necessary.
Fortunately, platforms have emerged to help clinics fill positions. For example, CrewPlace 12 allows hospitals to browse a vetted talent pool sourced by Siemens Healthineers. The tool enables medical clinics to hire with confidence, knowing that the professionals included on the platform have the skills and expertise needed to provide high-quality care.
3. Improved Workforce Support
Proactive workforce support may not solve all of the healthcare industry’s staffing problems. It can help alleviate the strain placed on medical clinics and their employees, though.
Clinics can coordinate with existing staff members to design succession plans, ensuring that critical roles get filled immediately. In addition, clinics can communicate with other local facilities to distribute doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals as needed, reducing the risk of paying a premium for skilled employees.
Medical facilities can also improve their employee care standards by implementing strategies to improve communication, increase safety measures, and support employees’ families. For example, some clinics and hospitals chose to offer bonus pay for expenses, childcare, and rent.
Others turned to team-wide wellness programs and exercise classes to improve physical and mental wellbeing. Some Missouri hospitals, 13 such as Truman Medical Center and Liberty Hospital, even provided their staff members with to-go dinners, sweet treats, food trucks, and baskets of produce to feed their families after long shifts.
How Weave Can Help Optimize Medical Clinics Post-Pandemic
At Weave, we know that medical clinics face an uphill battle as the country slowly but surely embraces the “new normal.” Even so, pandemic-era challenges are far from over. That’s why we created a Weave communication platform specifically for medical clinics.
Our unified communication platform integrates seamlessly into your current IT system and offers critical advantages such as:
1. On-the-Go Access
With Weave, your clinic is “always open,” no matter if you’re heading home after work or meeting with patients virtually. Our mobile app allows you to keep in touch with your team and contact patients using your clinic’s number, making it easier to offer connected, cohesive care.
2. Real-Time Updates
Weave supports SMS text message conversations, allowing you to chat with busy patients, share real-time updates, and even confirm appointments without picking up the telephone or sending an email. As a result, you and your staff can save more than 15 hours per week 14 without sacrificing the quality of your care or communication.
3. Improved Patient Engagement
Your patients rely on you for expert care and timely communication. However, with staff shortages crippling clinics nationwide, you and your team may struggle to keep up.
Weave helps support high-quality patient engagement by providing features such as:
- Convenient access to patient details with each call
- A staff chat tool that supports HIPAA-compliant communications
- Easy missed-call alerts and text messages that allow patients to chat with your team when no one is available to answer the phone
COVID-19 has changed the healthcare industry forever. Fortunately, you don’t have to scramble to engage with your customers, coordinate your team, or manage online reviews. Instead, you can opt for Weave’s streamlined communication hub.
On the hub, team members can access critical care information, collect payments, and send and receive new patient forms without the hassle of emails, phone calls, or face-to-face check-ins. No matter if you plan to reopen your doors and resume business as usual or embrace a hybrid workplace, Weave has the tools you need to keep your clinic on track.
For more information on our services or to schedule a free Weave demo.