Like an average Joe or Jane who has been bitten by a radioactive spider or exposed to an alien artifact, the average employee has emerged from the last two years with a superpower.
With that new economic power comes a new perspective on life and work, especially in healthcare. They’re tired of feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, under-appreciated, emotionally drained, even bullied. They’ve been tired for a long time, but now they’re ready to stand up for themselves and what they want, even if that means walking away.
Healthcare leaders, on the other hand, feel like they’re living in Gotham, with dark skies looming overhead and unpleasant surprises around every corner. It’s a fair perspective: Staffing shortages are causing serious problems in their ability to make quality healthcare accessible.
In a recent MGMA survey, 73% of practice leaders said that staffing is their biggest challenge heading into 2022. We’re facing the tragic loss of thousands of healthcare workers to the pandemic. With the partial closing of our borders, the flow of workers from other countries has slowed to a trickle. We’re seeing headhunters come after people in roles they’ve never touched before. And according to a whitepaper by Jackson Physician Search and MGMA, over the past year, 43% of physicians have considered early retirement and 27% have considered just leaving medicine and finding a new career. Burnout is at an all-time high.
For the staff and providers who stay, lost colleagues often means more work and more stress. For patients, it can mean less access. Already, 76% of practice leaders we surveyed said they’ve had to change operations this year due to staffing shortages. That could mean they’re reducing their hours or eliminating some services altogether. For leaders, it means more uncertainty and tougher challenges. Some are holding back on policies they think are right for their practice or community but might turn off critical employees.
This does sound a bit Gotham-esque, but the most important thing to remember is that healthcare leaders have power, too. We’re all living through an origin story that will shape the next few years, even the next decade, in healthcare, and leaders are in the unique position to influence where the story goes from here.
It starts with using our tools of influence—culture, strategy, and innovation—to retain and attract the people we need and find the best path forward when we can’t.
Work on Your Culture
One of the most alarming statistics for any leader should be this one: In the survey by Jackson Physician Search and MGMA, we asked physicians and administrators about their “physician retention program.” Thirty percent of administrators said they didn’t have one, which isn’t great. Worse, 83% of physicians said there wasn’t one in place. They don’t even realize their organizations are actively trying to hold onto them, that’s how tepid or misaligned the efforts are.
What about you? Do your physicians and staff understand how much you value them and want them to be happy and fulfilled? Do you have a culture in which people genuinely feel supported in their personal and professional goals? Are you having conversations with them about what they want, what they’re looking for next, or whether they’re happy?
Right now, too many leaders feel afraid to open the dialogue, as if just asking the questions will make employees realize they’re dissatisfied. As if they’ll quit on the spot. But the elephant has been in the room for a while, and avoiding it is a fast path to higher turnover.
We cannot let our focus on filling positions keep us from creating a great place to work. As Debbie Cohen and Kate Zummer put it so well in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “In the frantic need to hire more people, the group we often forget to attend to are the folks who stay—those showing up day-in and day-out shouldering the work that needs to get done.”
Get Proactive and Adaptive in Your Strategy
Here’s the hard truth: right now, there simply aren’t enough people to go around. So, more than likely, you will lose people you need or have trouble hiring if you’re trying to grow. Knowing this, you can be proactive. At MGMA, we’ve been working on scenario planning. We’ve asked, if the worst-case happened and we were short-staffed by 20 percent, what would that look like? How would we fill the gaps? What would we do differently?
The fundamental answer is that we would need to reimagine how we do what we do, and that’s not a bad thing for any organization, especially in healthcare. It forces us to examine our inefficiencies, and every practice or company has them. It forces us to override the more work = more staff mentality, or the more employees = more success mentality.
So, what are the best case, worst case, and realistic views of your staffing future? For each, what could or would you do differently? Scenario planning can help you focus on training staff better to alleviate shortfalls, identify appropriate outsourced services, reorganize workflow or departments and much more so that you can be proactive and agile as your staffing shifts, without putting undo pressure on those who stay.
Organizations that are doing well are moving away from “this is how we do things” thinking. They’re becoming more flexible, adaptive, and agile, and that’s also helping them attract and retain great staff and providers.
Stop Reacting and Innovate Instead
Healthcare operations are entrenched. Any kind of process innovation requires a lot of effort to overcome inertia. Take a look at Sachin Jain’s recent article for Forbes, “The 7 Sins Slowing the Pace of Healthcare Change,” and you’ll see all of the forces aligned against smart innovation. We’re not powerless against any of them.
Most organizations could operate more efficiently and with less burn out if the leaders took an innovative view of where to go from here, based on what they know about their patients and what they hear from their staff. Because of external forces in the industry, though, leaders tend to be reactive rather than proactive in what and how they change.
Proactive, people-first systems innovation can make a world of difference, though, and in more than just dealing with staffing shortages. This is the greatest power we all hold to shape a better future in healthcare. It’s any organization’s best opportunity for growth. And right now, it’s almost a requirement for survival, given the rise of telehealth, health tech, and other new models of care delivery.
The good news is that many leaders recognize there’s work to be done and are ready to do it. In a recent survey, 42% of practice leaders said that operations and human resources were the top priority for improvement heading into 2022. They’re acknowledging their power and the responsibility that comes with it. That’s all any leader needs to do to create a happier ending to their story.