The art of critical communications for staffing during hospital emergencies

In an emergency, hospitals face significant operational challenges related to quality of care, technology and resources — as well as the often overlooked issue of staffing.

When a critical situation occurs, hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, creating pressure on the facility to have a certain number of staff members in house to handle the heightened level of demand. There is usually confusion among employees about where they need to be and when; and as any healthcare provider knows, confusion can lead to compromised patient care. How can hospitals quickly, efficiently and securely communicate with physicians and nurses to avoid confusion and successfully navigate emergency situations with minimal missteps?

The answer can be found when your hospital effectively implements a critical communication strategy that leverages an automated system. This is what The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, N.J., did in the midst of preparing for the worst storm to hit the northeast United States in years. In this article, we'll explain how The Valley Hospital revamped its communication strategy and system while sharing some best practices for other hospitals to adopt to eliminate communication gaps during both emergency and non-emergency events.

Traditional communication methods for staffing just don't cut it
The traditional method of staffing for a hospital on any given day or week is manual and time consuming. This is especially true during on-call scenarios, when a nurse or administrator has to get the scheduling book and see who is on call, whether or not he/she just came off a shift and if he/she has the required clinical experience. From there, they have to dial each and every person, hoping that they not only pick up, but that they are available to work.

Traditional methods for staffing and communications are barely good enough for a "normal" day, let alone a major emergency like Hurricane Sandy, which pummeled New York and New Jersey in 2012. Let's take just one example regarding the importance of mobile communications and messaging. During these critical events, physicians and nurses are even more likely to leverage various communication methods and devices to collaborate with each other, control situations and ensure effective patient care is delivered under duress. Compliance regulations, such as HIPAA, are even more burdensome during these situations, and healthcare professionals desire solutions that enable them to use their mobile devices to send messages quickly, securely and in compliance.

At The Valley Hospital, the critical communications revamp was centered on the hospital operations resource center, which is responsible for staffing all clinical areas. By thinking critically and collaboratively to create a strategic plan and completely automating its critical communications process, The Valley Hospital was able to ensure fluid staffing throughout Hurricane Sandy and the storm's fallout, as well as on a day-to-day basis.  

Today, the hospital knows who is on-call each day and its system sends out automated messages to that particular group on multiple devices, including mobile. It can even filter those messages based on a staff member's credentials. For example, if a nurse with a critical care background is needed to work the second shift and has been off duty for at least 12 hours, The Valley Hospital can find and communicate with that person in seconds.

With many critical communication systems, "spamming" is often a major complaint among staff, but The Valley Hospital has avoided that by adopting a first-come, first-serve approach. Once a spot is filled, all messaging stops.

What once took an hour or two — to manually look through files or on-call books to find the right staff members — now takes The Valley Hospital less than five minutes to complete.

Step one: Research, prepare and automate   
How can your hospital ensure that its critical communication system is emergency ready? First, you must get internal buy-in to support the project and provide resources, approvals and feedback throughout the planning cycle. Having members from different departments (C-suite, nurses, administrators, physicians, etc.) involved in the planning will ensure different perspectives are brought to the table and unique needs are incorporated into the final product.

As a next step, be sure to diligently research the right technology vendor to help make the transition. In The Valley Hospital's case, that partner was Everbridge. Automating your critical communication system is key. In fact, in this day and age, it is a core tenant of something that needs to be adopted to guarantee the best possible patient care in any scenario. With such a major project, having a vendor act as a partner and advisor throughout the process (and even after) is essential.

Step two: Embrace the template
Once your automated system is implemented, it won't just run itself. Planning ahead is key to optimally utilizing your new system. Creating message templates is essential. Think about who you are trying to reach, what you are trying to say and what type of responses you are looking for. These messages can be based on the nature of what's going on (a hurricane, terrorist attack, fire, etc.), who is going to be impacted and what buildings and towns are going to be affected.

To save time, have templates drafted to avoid confusion during an emergency when panic can cloud judgment. Here are a few examples that The Valley Hospital uses:

  • "This is an important message from The Valley Health System …"
  • "For all hospital employees …," or "For all system employees …"
  • "A weather emergency is in effect for The Valley Hospital …"

Step three: Leverage communications for the day-to-day
Now that you have an automated communication system, don't just use it for emergency situations — integrate it into your hospital's day-to-day operations. Identify those tasks that are taking a lot of time and forcing staff members away from their core job functions.

For example, The Valley Hospital always used nurses to make appointment calls, which would take hours a day and not leverage the nurses' true experience and expertise. The hospital began using its notification system for surgical preparation calls. This allowed it to send appointment reminders to patients with surgical prep instructions. The alerts are sent in a timely fashion and the nurses are freed up to do what they do best: take care of patients.

Step four: Track your success
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? The same goes for a message — just because it's sent, does it mean it's read, understood and acted on?

For messages sent, The Valley Hospital vigilantly tracks who receives them, who responds, who ignores them/hangs up and who acknowledges them. By tracking these things, it can better tweak its communication strategy and learn from missteps.

As an example, The Valley Hospital has significantly reduced the number of patient "no-shows" since implementing its new communication strategy. More patients receive messages and they are more inclined to let staff know if they can't make it to appointments. This small change saved The Valley Hospital significant revenue that would have otherwise been lost.

Automation and proactive planning
Today, The Valley Hospital is communicating with staff and patients via phone, but it has plans to add additional methods of communication very soon (email, text message, etc.) to better reach people via their preferred point of contact.

Having a critical communication strategy and system is vital for bridging the gap between a hospital and its staff and a hospital and its patients. Eliminating costly, time-consuming manual intervention allows hospitals to reallocate resources — saving money, increasing revenue and, most importantly, improving the quality of patient care in the long run.



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