The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented levels of stress for health care workers. Hospitals and health systems are seeing a surge in demand, and health plans are rapidly shifting resources to serve the immediate needs of their members. As health organizations respond to COVID-19, they should focus on the three core components of a workforce strategy: (1) empower the clinical workforce, (2) enable virtual health programs, and (3) support work-from-home options.
Navigating the workforce implications of COVID-19
The health care system’s response to this pandemic is being led by first responders and frontline workers. These groups, which include patient-facing workers (from caregivers to housekeepers and other employees who support care), are rapidly expanding as organizations augment their clinical workforces to respond to an expanding need.
Consider these three strategies to help empower clinical workers:
- Assess capacity: Organizations should review and refine assumptions in their capacity and usage models to help predict demand related to the pandemic. This should include multiple scenarios such as capacity surges and secondary waves of demand. Likely areas of high demand—driven by the pandemic—should be identified and coupled with an understanding of the organization’s clinical skillsets, ability to flex resources, and capacity to leverage the workforce across various sites of care.
- Flex the workforce: Consider new approaches for augmenting frontline employees including reskilling or upskilling (e.g., simulation training for clinicians from other specialties), and leveraging non-traditional staff (in non-vulnerable populations) to do skill-based tasks for which they are licensed or can quickly gain licensure. Organizations might use social media to identify and recruit non-traditional talent such as former clinicians. Organizations should also consider ways technology can augment the workforce and standardize decision-making.
- Build resilience: Many workers are likely experiencing stress and increased job insecurity, especially if there is a perception that the employer might need to cut costs. Health organizations should build resiliency among their staff by offering practical support such as healthy meal service, transportation subsidies, child care, wellness apps, and hotel rooms to protect immune-compromised family members (read our article dedicated to the five core qualities of resilient leadership here).
Virtual health/telemedicine can be used to expand capacity and reduce exposure for both clinicians and patients. Virtual health capabilities can make it possible for exposed but asymptomatic clinicians to see patients. Many hospitals, health systems, and health plans are encouraging patients to use telemedicine. The success of these virtual health programs will rely, in part, on how equipped a workforce is to deliver those services.
Consider these three strategies to enable virtual health programs:
- Stand-up a virtual health response team: Dedicate non-clinical resources (or clinical staff with low utilization) who have bandwidth to run point on the program. One of this team’s most important tasks will be to quickly set up the virtual health infrastructure. This might include selecting a vendor and technology platform and defining a model of care. Under normal circumstances, we might recommend integrating the new program with existing systems. In this situation, however, we suggest organizations focus on the short-term by prioritizing speed of deployment and ease of use.
- Simplify training: Remove barriers that could keep users from using the technology by ensuring training materials are concise and easy to follow. Clearly define the benefits of the virtual health platform. Critical topics include communication mechanisms and required documentation and charting. Demonstrate how patient documents can be fed into a patient’s electronic health record, and how other clinicians can easily access a patient’s information.
- Revisit sustainability: Virtual health programs should be focused on meeting short-term needs. In the long-term, however, that approach can lead to tailored processes limited to single-use cases rather than allowing for flexible protocols that adapt with time. Health organizations should reassess their virtual health programs a few months from now to verify that an enterprise-wide strategy, proper governance models, workforce training, and other infrastructure are in place for long-term integration and success.
Many organizations are allowing their employees to work from home as much as possible. For some employees, this might be the first time they’ve worked remotely for a sustained period. Some organizations will need to reflect on how work gets done and how that flexes in this new normal (to learn more about how to drive agility in uncertain and certain times, see our perspective on the Adaptable Organization).
Consider these three strategies to support employees who are working from home:
- Establish and communicate privacy policies: Remind employees about relevant policies related to confidentiality and computer/data security. These policies can vary by geography and some employees might have temporarily relocated closer to family where protocols are different than their main residence.
- Provide tactical best practices: Help employees stay connected to their co-workers by establishing regular virtual check-ins with teammates. Best practices vary by level and should include tactics that equip managers to lead virtual teams (e.g., setting clear expectations, re-calibrating performance expectations to new circumstances).
- Support physical & emotional well-being: As the border between work and home becomes blurred, encourage employees to prioritize their well-being including supporting mental health (e.g., having a routine, moving regularly). Survey your workforce to understand their needs and provide practical assistance programs (e.g., more lenient leave policies, free online tutoring for children at home). Communicate those programs regularly.
The pandemic has rapidly accelerated the future of work in health care. While unanticipated, the work, workforce, and workplace inside and outside health care may be irrevocably changed. Health care organizations should carefully consider the impact of the pandemic is having on their workforce and quickly institute strategies that help them and the organization effectively respond and recover.
Jen Radin, principal, chief innovation officer, Deloitte Consulting LLP.
Maureen Medlock, senior manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP.
Emma Knoesen, consultant, Deloitte Consulting LLP.
Acknowledgements: Michelle Nicholson, Harish Patel, and Katie Rial
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