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Can technology really augment and streamline healthcare operations and make the work of healthcare workers easier? Can technology help provider organizations actually manage their workforce more effectively?

The answer to both of these questions is obviously, “Yes.” And despite significant progress over the past few years, it still seems at times that technology and digital tools complicate and confuse as much as they help. The reality hasn’t yet matched the promise.

Still, there are tools and platforms that are accelerating the progress. And, helping provider organizations communicate and engage with their workforce in ways that can help those caregivers find even more satisfaction on their work while smoothing out the bumps of staffing shortages.

Greg Allen Ahrens is an advisor for ShiftMed, a new type of staffing platform. Delivering easy to use an innovative tools that help providers streamline their day-to-day operations and optimize their show rates.

Courtney Kelsey is an associate vice-president and strategic engagement and development expert in Jarrard Inc’s Academic Medical Center Practice. In her work, Kelsey applies her deep background in team optimization and people focused change management to help healthcare leaders enhance the entire employee experience.

In this conversation, Kelsey, Ahrens and David Shifrin talk about how technology can augment and support healthcare leaders, staffing, and engagement efforts, and how a new wave of tools exemplified by ShiftMed can save huge amounts of money while increasing job satisfaction and professional growth among healthcare workers.

Key Insights

  • Have a sense of urgency. Times are tough for everyone in the healthcare world. If you wait to solve your workforce issues while you’re focusing on other things, all of the talent will have already been scooped up by other systems taking the initiative.
  • Integrate technology with humanity. By listening to what your people want and understanding the “hotspots” in your organization, you can empower your employees to reach their goals with the help of technology.
  • Enhance your workforce via education. Investing in and educating your existing workforce gives you more control over your system’s capabilities while at the same time differentiating yourself as an employer and elevating your brand.

Read the Transcript

David Shifrin: So, Craig, right before we started recording, you kind of laid out for Courtney and me almost your worldview around the healthcare organization and how everything centers on workforce, and I really like how you set that up. So, I’d love if you could give a recap of these different pieces: the education, the childcare, everything centers around workforce, I think is how you put it. If you could just talk about that to set the stage for how you look at the world of healthcare.

Craig Ahrens: Healthcare has always been a people business, and includes the people that are not only being cared for, but the people that are caring for them. It’s very much a human-based business. I don’t think anybody wants a computer taking care of them. Workforce has always been essential and key, and that mission to serve has always been a part of it. I think that there’s been broad recognition, and this was even happening pre-pandemic but post-pandemic even more so, that we can always depend upon a reliable source of mission-oriented individuals to care for people, and that there’s an unlimited supply of them to meet the demand. All the demographic indicators pre-pandemic were all saying there’s this huge wave of baby boomers, huge gap in terms of education, a gap in terms of supply. Guess what? It’s here and it’s going to be here for the next foreseeable future, seven to 12 years or what have you. And this is where technology comes in. It’s not technology in the sense of what I was saying in terms of technology without the human being. It’s human beings augmented by technology and engaging through technology in ways that better engage individuals to encourage them to either work more efficiently, is another way, or activate them in ways that they’ve never been able to activate before, because healthcare in the past has been a fixed 40-hour work week and you’re going to like it. And a lot of that theory has been around, “they need to be consistent workers, they need to be 40 hours per week,” because that’s what’s going to relate to high patient quality. There’s a certain element of truth to that. You need a core, central, FTE pool. But there have been many studies that have come out and put forth that the idea of flexible labels around a core combined with engagement mechanisms and technology. It’s all about, how do we remove tasks from people to make them more efficient, turn one to many, and engage them in different way that makes them feel like “You’re part of a mission and a team.” And it makes them want to work for you. So, that’s my philosophy.

CK: I love the way you said that Craig, and so much of it we’re also seeing in the work we’re doing, and more and more folks really focusing on getting really sharp on that employee value proposition, and really trying to elevate who they are to employees so they can recruit and retain the top folks. We’re seeing more and more folks try to tell their story for the first time. Pre-pandemic it was just, you were the major healthcare player in town, so folks worked for you, and that was just it, thing one, thing two, it’s just how it worked. And now post-pandemic, post-agency staffing, and the amount of travel nursing, for instance, that we saw, it’s so important for health systems to tell their story in bigger, better, sharper ways, to really engage folks and mean, “We are taking care of you as a human, we are connecting to your human purpose, and when you come here, [to your point about the technology] we have the tools you need to really work at your top of license, at your best and brightest in this moment.” And take away some of the things that have really been challenging to frontline workers, way pre-pandemic, but also especially right now, things like scheduling and shifting, and the things that we’re seeing our nurse managers spend 90% of their time on, instead of taking care of their people, or advancing their departments, or doing work for magnet status, whatever it may be. This is such an important moment and opportunity for health systems to kind of redefine what it means to be there for their people on the human side, to redefine the human experience that their employees have within their health system.

CA: And that human touch is not separate from technology. There’re ways to enhance it, and it’s not just about RNs, about your CNA, your patient transporter, your environmental services person that’s cleaning the room. Every single person is a part of your brand, and you making them feel engaged, and respected, and being able to relieve the stress off them makes them better caregivers to the patients. And the technologies that are out there right now are not necessarily new. They are from other industries. I’ll give you an example: you have technology that’s simple, that there’s an open shift that engages with somebody that never, ever would’ve considered looking for you before. And it engages with them in a transparent manner that skips a layer of cost. And ShiftMed is a premier example of this. They leverage your brand as a hospital, so you build your own latent workforce, and you’re not giving it to a staffing agency or 1099 gig, you’re building your own capabilities with your brand. And that marking differentiation that we’re seeing as exclusive partners, that ShiftMed is doing in these markets, that help them build their own capabilities, it’s such a big differentiator, not only to the workers, but to the patients, because now they recognize that there’s enough staff there. They recognize that they’re at the forefront of it, that they’re engaging people in ways they want to be engaged.

CK: Absolutely.

DS: Craig, I want to sort of talk about how we can humanize the brand, essentially, and how having that logo, that mission statement, that tagline out in front of the building isn’t just a brand in sort of the raw, “Coca-Cola logo,” sense of the word, but it actually has a deeper meaning, in that, when we’re bringing people in and we’re supporting the people who work for us, we can actually, I guess, create a more holistic perspective on the organization.

CA: I think – and Courtney, please jump in and offer some feedback related to your experience with this – but let’s talk about Catholic healthcare, our religious-based organizations. There’s a mission there that goes beyond healthcare. It talks about social equity, about other things, and technology enables to put that humanizing element of that out there in a much more efficient way. What do I mean by that? So, ShiftMed, I’m going to use them as an example because I advise them, but I advise many other healthcare technology companies that are in this workforce or operational transformation space, but ShiftMed has a partnership with Hoover Health. Why? When we looked at the behavioral science data, the human aspect of this, it told us that these CNAs wanted to work more, but they had issues with public transportation. Many of them were dependent upon public transportation, and 46% of them, in fact, did not make it to their shift because of delays in public transportation.

CK: Wow.

CA: So, you know, there’s a humanizing element of this by behavioral science, by looking at the individuals. They actually employ behavioral scientists to look at and archetype these people, and work with them to identify those gaps where people are falling through the cracks, and ways to fill in and engage in an efficient way, while still stabilizing your labor pool and enhancing your brand by putting practical action of your mission into action, via technology. The idea and notion of DEI-related, or social equity-related items, every healthcare mission statement has it, across every hospital. But the practical brand application of it via technology, while stabilizing a workforce. Education is always an issue in healthcare. You need continuous education. You need education to elevate yourself to become a more specialized RN. You need education to engage you. Tuition-based education to keep you working at a certain place. But you combine that with a marketplace platform where you offer via technology, “Hey, RN, you can get a subspecialized skill in pediatrics.” Now you can staff via this marketplace on demand with pediatrics and increase your skill level. And, “Hey, CNA we’ll pay for you to become an RN, but in exchange for that you’re now in the healthcare ROTC program of XYZ branded healthcare system.” So, for those that aren’t familiar with ROTC, we’re taking the military form of ROTC where you trade time, or money and time, for that education. Similarly, healthcare systems could do the same to help elevate people via education. And then finally, the notion of modular benefits, which is an old notion, but via technology in a marketplace, we can offer, “Here’s a pot of money. If you work 10 hours a week for us and with our brand, we’re going to offer you detailed programs around allocating and choosing.” Do you want more healthcare? Do you want more childcare? “I need the money allocated toward childcare, and I’m going work 10 shifts a month, 15 shifts a month.” I’ll take that for dependable, branded healthcare by your healthcare system, or branded childcare by your healthcare system. It enhances your brand even more. So, you have DEI, education, childcare, mission elevation, social equity, all of this via technology while stabilizing your workforce, but elevating your brand as a marketer too for your approach to the community. It’s more than just about filling shifts, it’s about really engaging and elevating the entire community via these programs.

CK: I love hearing you talk about the ways that we can – through the technology, through these opportunities, DEI, education, childcare, all of these things – we can accelerate our mission, vision, values, make real mission, vision values. I feel like that’s something we see with our clients all the time, and everything you’re just talking about right there is the “so what?” that’s the, “what this looks like.” When you tell stories about what your mission actually is, it’s those things in action. It’s the DEI commitments you’ve made, it’s the partnerships you’ve made to make your team’s life easier, the ways that you’re upskilling your folks so they can come in an entry level role and have opportunities to get additional schooling, to get additional trainings, and build a career with your health system, and through that, build all sorts of things within the community.

CA: You can also measure via the technology too. How many people have you actually converted and done this with, and you’ve enhanced patient care through activating a thousand new people through a variety of shift models that you never had as a potential before, and saved 80 million dollars and redirected it to the community because you reduce travel labor. So, this model is the future, and it’s very appealing to every healthcare system out there. They’re all in their boardrooms trying to figure this stuff out. And branding is on top of their mind right now. It’s saving money. But wouldn’t it be great if I could save money, stabilize my workforce, and elevate my brand at the same time? Bonus, Chief Marketing Officer. You just won the prize at the board table.

CK: Yeah. That’s the dream, I think, that you just spelled out. I think too, the data portion of what you just said. Everyone has a mission, vision, values. Everyone has an employer brand of some sort. It’s being able to tell the stories backed by the data that you just shared, and really, actually demonstrate, tangibly for your board, for your teams, for your patients, community partners, prospective employees, the ways that you are actually making a difference for those you serve, and also those who serve them.

CA: You know, there is one aspect of this branding quality I haven’t mentioned that’s being deployed. The ratings mechanisms. They’ve been around a long time. Very good companies. It’s always lagging t information on your brand, on the experience of the workforce, on the experience of your patients, right? And you never really get a beat on, “is the sample large enough or not?” There are all these other factors that are coming into play with these rating mechanisms. These marketplace platforms have the rating mechanisms built within the app. So, at the end of a shift, you’re automatically cued to rate that shift, and the manager rates you. And that real time identification and rating mechanism allows for the identification of hotspots and issues that relate to your brand that you never, ever would’ve gotten insight on.

CK: Absolutely, and especially from maybe the quality, think lean, think other kind of real-time type coaching and feedback process mechanisms, tools like that. Huge. That would change the game for folks to be able to identify in real-time hotspot shifts, floors, units that may need additional support on something, or doing best practices that we need to analyze, investigate, and then scale across the system.

CA: And this isn’t “pie in the sky” stuff, this is happening right now. This is healthcare systems, large Catholic healthcare systems that are innovative, but they’re moving at a faster pace than I’ve ever seen them ever move in the past. I mean we’re talking what used to take 18 to 24 months, people are moving in three to six months on these concepts right now to capitalize and capture the market around the brand and tying it to their workforce and the mission.

DS: Practical question: what are the two or three questions that leadership teams need to be asking to open the door on these solutions? Because we’ve talked about every healthcare organization is struggling with workforce challenges, everybody knows what the problems are, but there’s still problems. They haven’t been resolved. But if folks are trying to find the first place to start, what’s the question that’s going to get them there?

CA: Can you afford not to do something in the next six to 12 months? The answer for most health systems is, “No, I can’t,” because they’re already losing a billion dollars, or what have you. And there’s only so much in terms of funds and reserves that they can tap into. And, “Do you have, the funding?” is often tied to, “Are you volume capping unintentionally because you don’t have the people around you to actually make it happen?” And a lot of folks think they’re not, but when they dig a layer deeper, they start to recognize that their nurse managers are actually capping, and they don’t even realize it, and it’s happening. So, there’s that element, and then – excuse me, there’s some people walking by. I’m in Charlotte, North Carolina. So, there’s that first element. Can you afford to wait? The answer is no. The second question is, “What can I do to move it quicker or faster, and with the right partner to help me quickly implement my brand, my logo?” with the goals of acquiring a flexible workforce and more full-time people through that recruitment platform, right? How do I do that? What’s the right partner model? You need to find a true labor workforce partner that actually builds out the model that emphasizes your internal brand, the internal workforce first, and then cascades to a local W-2 on demand pool of people. It stands up rapidly, in three to six months. That helps you cut double-digit millions out of your travel, so you immediately stabilize your platform, but also prepare yourself for the future. Now the third question is, beyond just saving money, what do they do to stabilize my pools going forward, to create a stable recruitment pipeline and brand around education, childcare, and other things, other technology wraparounds? And if you’re going to go through a 15-month RFP process because you have to, it’s already the wrong answer. You’re not thinking about it in the right way. You got to think like a startup or think about an organization that is in a dire circumstance. People are literally dying unless you put resources toward the workforce that also elevates your brand, but you need to do it now. Not six months from now. Before somebody else does it, and they capture the market, and you’re left holding the bag, in terms of paying $150 an hour for a workforce just attract them back to you.

CK: Craig, to go back to your first question that you shared in terms of asking a board, “Can you afford to not do anything right now?” I’m going to assume everyone’s answer is going to be, “We cannot afford to not do anything right now.” I think from our perspective, and a lot of the work we get to do with clients, would be that next step would be identifying, when’s the last time you talked to your people? Do you know those hotspots? Do you know those moments along the employee journey that you’re losing folks, that are creating the most tension, consternation? That’s when you’re losing folks in this employee journey. You’re losing everyone at year three because they don’t have room to grow, they don’t have X, they don’t have Y, but the place across town does. So, have you talked to your people? When’s the last time you talked to your folks? And then, how can we partner with you to think about all of those moments along the employee journey to take the human experience back front and center as we automate and augment with all the exceptional tech that you’ve just been talking about as well?

CA: So, I very much appreciate both of your time and allowing me to describe what’s going on in the market. Live from Charlotte, North Carolina. Just leaving a health system talking about this stuff. It’s great to share with you, as well.

DS: Thanks so much Craig. Appreciate your time and great to see you.

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