Health systems can't 'recruit our way out of a workforce shortage'

Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic's 2030 strategy is simple: to cure, connect and transform. But to get there, the world-renowned health system needs a robust people strategy developing the workforce of the future. 

Staff shortages worsened during the pandemic and reliance on travel nurses rocketed labor expenses for hospitals; now many are trying to cut costs by hiring and retaining employed staff. Staffing expenses are growing at a slower clip in 2023 than they did in the two years prior, but increases are still above pre-pandemic averages, according to Syntellis.

And Moody's Nov. 8 report predicted labor expenses will continue to increase for nonprofit hospitals next year. Mayo Clinic is taking a different approach by investing in a robust automation strategy, led by Sarah Poncelet, to use artificial intelligence, process engineering, process automation and robotics to support the team.

"We believe that we won't be able to recruit our way out of a workforce shortage," Ms. Poncelet, executive director of strategy development at Mayo, said on an episode of the "Becker's Healthcare Podcast." "Thirty percent of healthcare has the potential for automation, so we really want to reduce administrative burden, reduce manual tasks and processes in order to free up our most valuable asset, which is our people, and make sure they're doing human-related tasks versus things that could be potentially automated."

Ms. Poncelet's team is focused on strategy, planning and execution to scale automation across the system and alleviate pressures on areas with critical staff shortages, or where there is high turnover. Her team also hopes to help "bring joy back" to care teams and improve outcomes, safety and patient experience.

"The more mature that we see automation and augmentation of our workforce through AI, robotic and process automation or process engineering, the more we can see how the care we delivered in the past looks different in the future, and how we can work smarter and not harder," she said.

Her team is assessing different technologies and aims to invest in all three of Mayo's campuses to support the team with projects and execution. Mayo Clinic also has robust capabilities with Mayo Clinic Platform to transform medicine, mobilize intellectual property and physicians' knowledge to improve the healthcare delivery system.

One example is Mayo Clinic's virtual nursing program. The program allows registered nurses who were considering retirement to work fully remote, or they can work onsite as a preceptor to oversee medication refills and patients in the hospital. A nurse can also look across multiple rooms at the same time.

"Being able to empower them to see more patients in a virtual capacity has been something we've done that I know we want to advance and scale so that we can leverage one of our most critical staff needs, which is in our nursing space," Ms. Poncelet said. 

The health system is also tackling staff shortages among surgical techs. Ms. Poncelet's team found efficiencies for surgical techs that make them more efficient, such as taking a manufacturing approach to building surgical trays by adding robotic technology. 

"We really made sure that [surgical techs] are working at the top of their capabilities and leveraging technology and robots and other things to make sure they're augmenting the work and manual tasks, or repetitive tasks, that they had been doing in the past," she said. "We've also been partnering with Epic and building some of our own bots or AI within Epic to ensure we can pull knowledge from our patients or for our nurses while they're meeting with our partners and save time."

Even saving 10 to 15 minutes per patient visit adds up, giving nurses time to prepare patients or physicians for human interactions and provide the right guidance for the best quality care.

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