3 health system execs on staffing challenges, advice to peers

The pandemic has caused health systems to adjust their staffing to accommodate COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients. During the public health crisis, health systems have faced difficulties in recruiting workers and ensuring adequate staffing as patient volume shifted and employees were sidelined due to coronavirus exposure.  

Three executives from health systems across the U.S. recently spoke with Becker’s Hospital Review about the staffing challenges they faced in the beginning of the pandemic, the staffing challenges still faced months into the pandemic, and their advice to their peers facing similar situations.  

Editor’s note: Responses were edited lightly for length and clarity. 

Sheryl Dodds, chief people officer for AdventHealth Central Florida Division (Orlando): Central Florida was already a competitive place for nursing and many of our entry level positions, and COVID-19 intensified the need for highly skilled clinical workers. During the peak of the surge, we also had a significantly higher number of team members unavailable to work due to being exposed to COVID. (As of September, this trend subsided, and we’ve returned to our normal absentee levels). 

We did not furlough any team members, and instead, created a successful redeployment tool we called TalentMatch. TalentMatch allows team members to search for roles that they can temporarily fill that meet a business need. This resulted in thousands of team members being reassigned. TalentMatch allowed us to flex our workforce in a way that was mutually beneficial to both individual team members and the organization.

We continue to face challenges recruiting nurses, and we’re using a creative and layered approach to recruit and retain team members. We’re offering referral and hiring bonuses and making intentional efforts to retain staff. In preparation for times that COVID may again escalate, we have asked nurses who are currently in leadership or other non-bedside positions to consider returning to direct patient-care roles. We have many nursing leaders who want to support the front-line teams, and so we’re tapping into their passion to support areas with higher demand. 

My advice [for peers] is to invest in your team. It was important to keep our employees working in some capacity. This demonstrated that we value them, which in turn helps with retention and recruitment. Communicate, communicate, communicate. COVID created much uncertainty with the constant changing of guidelines and the fear of this unknown virus that could impact them personally or their families.

Rachel Harris, BSN, RN, interim chief nursing executive for Erlanger Health System (Chattanooga, Tenn.): This has been one of the most challenging times in my 27-year nursing career. The challenge we anticipated at the beginning was not the reality of what the situation turned out to be. During the early stages, the community was very cautious to come to the hospital for any type of care. Then, elective procedures were canceled by state mandate, causing our census to drop dramatically. Due to the low census we had to adjust staff schedules and hours, which negatively impacted many of our team. Employees throughout the system sacrificed for the collective good of the organization. We felt for each of these individuals, but based on personal obligations, some staff did seek other opportunities and took travel assignments to COVID-19 inundated areas. Worrying about their safety and health, I remained in contact with many of them on a weekly basis. We’ve been fortunate and are thankful many have returned, although others felt the calling and have continued to travel. 

As far as what we are still experiencing, community exposures have caused us to quarantine some clinical staff. We are working tirelessly to combat the negative effects every hospital is facing, but it is a challenge every day, every shift. Our top priority is to have proper safety practices that protect our staff, patients and families. We are continuously learning about the virus and how to compassionately engage with families while restricting visitation and isolating patients that are being treated with the virus. 

Karen Springer, executive vice president of performance optimization and nursing operations, Ascension (St. Louis): Early in the pandemic response, Ascension implemented new practices to support the financial security of our associates while making resources available to help them address challenges, including establishing charitable funds to help associates experiencing financial hardships; committing to protect the pay of associates during the height of the pandemic; dependent care support; and specialized or targeted benefits available to front-line associates, such as covering 100 percent of the hotel stay cost for clinical associates who chose to stay in a hotel to eliminate any concern regarding unintentional cross contamination to family members. 

We also established a process to redeploy clinical associates within markets and across state lines to assist in our most impacted surge markets. Through the Ascension Critical Staffing Program, more than 6,700 Ascension nurses, student nurses and nurse interns in 10 states were cross-trained to serve in intensive care units, emergency departments, acute care areas and respiratory therapy units so they could help wherever and whenever needed. Cross-training nurses and other associates is having a long-term impact, as they have additional skills for new opportunities to navigate their careers and to better serve our communities. We have also developed the myCareer program to make it easier for our associates to share their desires for development and growth within Ascension, including new roles and communities. 

Our experience shows that by putting our patients and our associates first and focusing on our mission of providing compassionate, personalized care to all, we have been able to successfully navigate the pandemic.


More articles on workforce:
Cleveland’s University Hospitals offering sleep pods for front-line COVID-19 workers
865,000 women left the workforce in September, analysis finds
More than 250 healthcare workers killed in summer surges of coronavirus

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