Healthcare workers are in crisis: Some 35% of surveyed nurse leaders — usually a clinical specialist who oversees other leaders and registered nurses — say low morale and burnout is their biggest challenge, according to a March 2021 study by the American Association for Nursing Leadership. A stunning 16% reported that they are not emotionally healthy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put our healthcare workers under enormous strain, exacerbating burnout and staffing shortages that predate the pandemic. Even with recent increasingly relaxed regulations around COVID-19, the number of hospital patients remains far beyond normal levels, and staffing shortages continue forcing healthcare professionals to spend more time and energy at work than ever before. And they continue to risk personal safety and the safety of their loved ones with exposure to the virus and resulting infections at rates higher than the general population.
Unfortunately, the stress continues to grow. The Great Resignation, driven by exhaustion and external factors like lack of childcare and low wages, is reducing the number of healthcare professionals in the workforce, causing remaining staff to shoulder additional responsibilities. According to Morning Consult, nearly 20% of healthcare workers have quit their jobs during the pandemic, another 31% have considered leaving, and almost 80% have said that the shortage of workers in the industry has had an impact on them and their office.
As we’ve seen in recent years, technology can play an important role in improving patient outcomes and supporting healthcare workers, and we see it playing an important role in addressing current emergencies in staffing.
First, some context: In 2010, with the passage of Obamacare, healthcare systems across the country were required to implement electronic health records (EHR). At the time, many hospitals still relied on paper records or used basic records-management systems that were not integrated across systems or even across departments within the same system. Widely adopted EHR systems made it possible to improve patient outcomes by creating a common platform that shares critical information across providers. Today, electronic health records have reduced bureaucracy and improved the healthcare experience overall.
More recently, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic produced a second inflection point in the advancement and adoption of healthcare technology. As COVID gathered steam, many standard healthcare appointments shifted to virtual appointments in order to protect healthcare providers and patients and limit potential exposure. Doctors’ offices and healthcare systems invested in telehealth options, offering patients the opportunity to connect and communicate with medical professionals without leaving their own homes. Two years later, that expansion of telehealth infrastructure means that minor issues are routinely diagnosed and treated over the phone or via digital platforms, with only more serious issues requiring an in-person visit — making healthcare more efficient, more convenient, and more accessible for all.
Today, we are on the cusp of a third wave of healthcare-tech innovation through improved healthcare operations. Healthcare operations deal with the fundamentals of operating a hospital — from workforce management to ensure you have enough staff for each patient, to credentialing systems that identify doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, and their specialized expertise.
In the past, innovation in this portion of healthcare technology has lagged. Outdated technology and piecemeal point-solutions caused headaches for administrators and employees but were generally not thought of as negatively affecting patient outcomes. It is only now that the strain of the pandemic on our healthcare systems has made clear that when technology is not doing its job, quality of care, patients, nurses, and doctors suffer. In the best of times, an extra week to verify the credentials for a doctor joining a new healthcare system or a scheduling mix-up would not necessarily have a tangible and lasting effect on worker morale or patient outcomes. But the cumulative stress and strain of the pandemic, with hospitals and workers stretched beyond capacity, have made these delays and mix-ups result in overworked and overstressed healthcare professionals — and worst patient outcomes.
Here’s just one example of how tech-assisted healthcare operations can fundamentally improve patient outcomes. Advocate Aurora Health, a 26-hospital system throughout the Midwest that implemented symplr’s software, leveraged its workforce-management tools to effectively respond to COVID-19’s ongoing fluctuations. At the onset of the pandemic, Advocate Aurora created a virtual labor pool, allowing nurse leaders to request and reassign staff 24/7, to quickly adjust and respond to unexpected staffing shortages as workers tested positive for COVID-19. Approximately 5,000 furloughed staff members were quickly reassigned via this new dynamic scheduling system, moving nimbly to meet rising patient needs.
A comprehensive and lasting solution to the breakdowns in our healthcare systems, which have been exposed by the pandemic, will require significant investment in supporting our healthcare workers and recruiting, educating, and deploying reinforcements. This is not a quick or easy fix, and additional federal funding is an important first step.
Additionally, as nurses and nurse managers continue to struggle with mental health challenges like depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital leadership must prioritize frontline workers by listening to their concerns, encouraging them to take breaks when needed, and staffing them properly to avoid additional stress and burnout.
But equally important as providing emotional support is the continued investment in healthcare technology that improves efficiencies and supports healthcare workers. This is something that can, and must, be done today. It’s time for us to invest in the tools and support they need to succeed — and to serve them as well as they serve us.
Deb Zimmerman is chair of the Association of Nursing Leaders and a registered nurse. BJ Schaknowski is the CEO of symplr, which provides workforce management and governance, risk management, and compliance (GRC) software to the healthcare industry.