Creating a Post-COVID Healthcare System that Supports Healthcare Workers

The pandemic revealed the fragility, vulnerabilities and unique dangers of working in the healthcare setting. Chief among these was the eroded ability to service patients when there were staff availability issues.

Fighting the coronavirus took a terrible toll on many, especially healthcare workers. Reports show some residents and nurses saw more death in the last year than in their entire careers. That grim milestone paired with staffing shortages added up to the longest and toughest year of their lives.

At the same time, they are unequivocally the true heroes in this story.

The pandemic cast a bright light on the work ethic, courage and heroism of these often overlooked and under-appreciated professionals. At the same time, it left our unprepared healthcare systems exposed, revealing the fragility, vulnerabilities and unique dangers of working in that setting. Chief among these was the eroded ability to service patients when there were staff availability issues.

As infection and hospitalization rates drop and mass vaccination proceeds, the crisis and demand will subside. 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 much more to do

There's an opportunity and a challenge to build off lessons, innovate, evolve and address the issues emerging from the pandemic that are here to stay, poised to further pressure, re-shape and transform our system.

We should not wait until the world is fully healed before tackling this challenge. I’ve outlined six areas that I firmly believe require action now, as a community, to address these vulnerabilities and help ensure a better future for health care systems, professionals and, most importantly, our patients.

The rising cost in healthcare professional talent

Our nurses, doctors, allied healthcare professionals and everyone that makes our system work deserve to be compensated fairly. As such, their value and demand for talent will increase and with it the cost to hire, train and retain a healthcare workforce. What the pandemic has taught us is that many hospitals struggle financially during a surge in community healthcare needs. While COVID-19 was an acute case, we face an aging population that is the sickest generation to live. Hospitals and health systems need to continue to scale up and without healthcare professionals they can’t.

Most hospitals are nonprofit organizations and service providers need to play some role in helping them scale up during the crisis. What many people don’t know is how large a role that the healthcare staffing industry plays in the success of hospitals to attract and retain workers. During the pandemic, this became widely exposed. Some organizations partnered with hospitals on pricing concessions. Others did not. Some were transparent about market demands and others were not. Moving forward, the healthcare staffing industry needs to create greater transparency around pricing and work with their partners on staffing solutions that are fair to healthcare workers, healthcare organizations and themselves.

A fatigued workforce

After the events of this past year, healthcare workers are emotionally and physically fatigued. Policies and practices should be introduced and resources created to enhance the wellbeing of our clinicians. Prime examples of this throughout the pandemic were some hospitals and healthcare staffing organizations establishing a COVID-19 hotline and other educational offerings for those who provide care to our patients. This type of support for the workers who are fighting for us is needed more than ever today and in the future.

We can’t let this trend end with the pandemic. Our healthcare workforce needs continued support, emotionally and physically. Policies and programs need to be formed that provide and incentivize such an infrastructure.

Employee retention and new talent

Market demands and changing workforce mobility may present challenges to employee retention. Moreover, the pandemic has exposed gaps throughout the employee management lifecycle for many institutions.

This is an area where data can help provide personalized solutions or what we’ve come to call a “prescriptive approach.” We have seen the value of this approach firsthand over the last 12 months. Hospital staffing demands changed on a dime and one-size-fits-all solutions failed. The goalpost has to shift. Our focus should not be to place clinicians on the floor as quickly as possible. That is shortsighted. We must seek out the type of talent that would best suit the organization’s immediate and long-term needs. That may be contingent, freelance, direct hire or any other type of talent placement.

The pandemic has also exposed gaps in leadership and new leadership skills are required for managing through and adapting to a crisis. There are likely intangible and tangible leadership qualities that candidates need to exhibit. We need to understand how to quantify these qualities, and data can help.

An emerging digital workforce

The pandemic, an era of lockdowns and limited personal contact, triggered an explosion in telemedicine that is here to stay. Adapting to this environment across the care setting has unique challenges. There are new technology barriers that potentially need to be addressed with a more mobile workforce.

Healthcare systems should work to achieve a balance between physician-patient interaction in person or via telehealth devices and have clinicians on staff who are equipped to handle both.

The impact on patient safety

COVID-19 has brought forth new and unique dangers in the healthcare setting. Many hospitals and healthcare organizations were forced to adapt and address these new challenges in real time.Because safety is, and always will be, the first priority for these organizations the proposed solutions must complement that mission with built-in guidelines and benchmarks.

Data-driven analytics are the key to engaging and developing talent pools to support organizations in need. These insights and analytics paint a fuller and more 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 big issue that surfaced during the pandemic is the inability for healthcare workers to work across state lines. That has to change. Right now, two key pieces of pending legislation would allow for national licensure and waive the limitations prohibiting state-licensed clinicians from crossing borders. It took a pandemic for policy makers to realize the value of a national licensure, but that value will extend far beyond this point in time. Not only will it enable for a better emergency and public health crisis response, but it has the ability to help ensure equitable care throughout the United States.

Even before the pandemic, some regions have seen significant physician and nurse shortages while others have enjoyed an adequate workforce. That’s not going to 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 through interstate agreements. Now we need national legislation to unleash the full potential.

We are not yet near the end of this pandemic, but we are well on our way. Our industry has the opportunity to demonstrate the progress that can be achieved through placing integrity at the core of every decision we make. And I believe that if we continue to challenge ourselves to innovate, and truly pay attention to the lessons of the past year, that we will turn the corner on this pandemic and transform our system at the same time.

Kevin C. Clark is Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Cross Country Healthcare.