How are staffing issues affecting Hackensack Meridian Health?
We are impacted by the current staffing crisis, like most health systems around the country. Certainly COVID-19 exacerbated that. There were some shortages in key areas like nursing, some of the support functions and patient-care technicians. The various waves of COVID exacerbated the situation. At the peak of the omicron variant, which was in January, we had to employ upwards of 1,200 agency-based nurses to supplement the existing staff. Having said all that, it has calmed down quite a bit. We’ve seen nurses returning to work who might have been out sick with COVID, but also those who have let their contracts expire with agencies. There is still a fundamental shortage, and we’re trying to be creative to address it, like doubling down on our partnerships with schools and universities to be sure that we have an ample supply of personnel going forward. It’s certainly not as bad as it was maybe a few months back, but it’s definitely a problem that I think will be with us for some time.
How are you addressing this on the front end as you try to ensure there is a diverse mix of people interested in the medical field?
We created the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine about five years ago based on what we saw was going to be a significant physician shortage. The idea of the school was to retain talent within New Jersey and recruit talent from beyond New Jersey into our state. We saw COVID really exacerbate that issue.
One of the core curriculum items for the school is what we call the Human Dimension Program, which is based on community immersion. Medical students pair up with individuals and families, mostly from underserved communities. And they follow those families for their three or four years of medical education. Some other medical schools might have an elective class that’s dedicated to that type of approach. But in our case we require it, not just for a class, not just for a semester, but for their entire medical education. Those students will follow two families during the course of their tenure as students to learn firsthand some of the challenges those families are having, particularly in underserved communities dealing with social determinants of health, such as insecure finances or housing, food insecurities, transportation barriers, mental illness and addiction. Those are issues that are keeping these individuals and families from accessing healthcare and staying healthy, maybe preventing them from even going to a physician’s office on a regular basis. We believe teaching medical students early on about some of these issues is a core piece of providing equal access to care.
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How does this differ from traditional approaches to medical school curricula?
I look at our approach as a transformation of medical education. Traditional medical education really focuses on clinical skills, and our school does that as well. We have found that social determinants barriers play a big part in one’s health. Through community partnerships, we’re able to identify people who are at high risk for one or more of the social determinants, and then make referrals to various community centers. Of course they’re under the supervision of faculty who are trained physicians. They can hook up people who have diabetes, for example, with nutrition specialists. And in one case, there was an individual who lost 14 pounds in a really short period of time who needed less diabetic medication. They’ve helped people quit smoking; they’ve found better and more affordable housing; they were able to teach seniors how to use their iPads so they could engage in telehealth and really connect with their providers. You wouldn’t have seen that in a traditional medical school curriculum. We’re really proud of it. It’s received some national attention national recognition. We think it’s going to be the wave of the future.