Ensuring healthcare staffing preparedness for the next epidemic

Whether it's Ebola or an epidemic yet to come our way, healthcare organizations need a network of professionals who are adequately trained and, when necessary, easily deployable to deal with the unique staffing-related challenges these diseases present.

As the 2014 outbreak of Ebola revealed, epidemics put unexpected pressure on healthcare organizations and their staff, as sudden spikes in the number of patients in need of unique medical care upset the natural balance of the healthcare staffing ecosystem. With the number of Americans who have access to healthcare at an all-time high due to the Affordable Care Act, an epidemic could further strain the entire healthcare workforce – one that is already experiencing an uptick in demand for care. Therefore, it is more important than ever for healthcare organizations to ensure that they are adequately prepared to meet the staffing challenges that a future epidemic would present.

The severity of Ebola created a unique set of circumstances related to staff preparedness last year. As a result, many healthcare organizations have mandated Ebola preparedness training for all staff, including not only clinical staff, but administrative and operations employees. This effort sought to educate all professionals on best practices for self-protection when coming in contact with a patient and steps to take in order to prevent the spread of the disease. Ebola also presented challenges related to staffing supply. Healthcare organizations experienced an increased need for highly specialized staff, including Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Registered Nurses, Emergency Room (ER) Registered Nurses to act as Ebola Preparedness Nurses, and Infectious Disease Nurses. The successful treatment of any epidemic comes down to the tools available to on-site professionals and the ability to quickly mobilize additional professionals, both locally and across the U.S., to respond to the outbreak. Healthcare organizations need to ensure that their staff has the proper training and that they can quickly mobilize additional professionals to help combat the epidemic at their facility.

Below are several points for healthcare organizations to consider when thinking about their own staffing plans in the event of another epidemic:

Building a Network: In times of heightened demand for healthcare services, it is important for healthcare organizations to have a staffing strategy in place that allows them to proactively access a pool of quality professionals with the unique training/skills necessary to combat an epidemic if, and when, the need arises. In order to build such a network, organizations should: 1) Ensure they have strong distribution networks to communicate job openings locally and nationally at a moment's notice, 2) Have effective screening methods in place to ensure employees are qualified for the role, and 3) Ensure that any staffing firm they partner with is Joint Commission accredited, has experience in healthcare staffing, understands the culture of the organization and has a thorough grasp of the nuances of the particular epidemic.

Incentivizing Staff: Treating patients with infectious diseases is not for the faint of heart. Strong monetary compensation is always an incentive, but in order to find healthcare professionals willing to take on this selfless role as first responders, healthcare organizations need to actively search for professionals who are personally drawn to the work on an emotional level. Professionals who want to make a difference by doing challenging work for patients in need will be more invested in the task at hand, and therefore more motivated to perform at a high level and see the job through to completion. A vetting process for candidates that takes this personality standard into account can help to ensure retention in even the most trying times.

Ongoing Education: Infectious diseases often have nuanced treatment protocols that are based on the particulars of the specific disease. Therefore, it is vital that healthcare organizations offer ongoing training to healthcare professionals as best practices evolve. All healthcare professionals, including nurses, physician assistants and administrative and support staff, should have access to frequent, accessible, up-to-date training and certification programs for infectious disease preparedness. In addition to full-time staff, healthcare organizations must ensure that their contingent workforce is kept up-to-date on relevant training and certifications so professionals in that network can be ready at a moment's notice. By making certain that all healthcare professionals are up-to-date on their training and certifications, hospitals and clinics can ensure that the proper protocol is carried out while waiting for any additional healthcare professionals to arrive to address the epidemic.

Harnessing Technology: Areas that are understaffed are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of infectious diseases, and so delivering care as quickly as possible is key to controlling epidemics. Today, technology is allowing staff to access patients and colleagues instantly. These telehealth resources, in conjunction with a pipeline of professionals, allow healthcare organizations to provide consultative services remotely, while waiting for physical reinforcements to arrive. For example, telehealth technology can allow healthcare professionals to brief employees on containment tactics before additional support has been secured, stemming the tide of a further outbreak. As telehealth and healthcare IT grow, the impact of technology on healthcare staffing will continue to be felt more profoundly.

The demand for healthcare professionals is constantly changing, and healthcare organizations must be able to respond to that shifting landscape as efficiently as possible in order to keep pace with patients' needs. By considering the above points, healthcare organizations can improve preparedness for the next epidemic.

Kyle Mattice is President - Health Services, Temporary Division, at The Execu|Search Group. Follow The Execu|Search Group on Twitter @ExecuSearch.

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