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How Medical Crises Like COVID-19 Hold Valuable Lessons for Healthcare Recruitment and Retention

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Whether it’s a natural disaster like 2017’s Hurricane Katrina, issues like the ongoing opioid crisis, or a global pandemic like 2020’s coronavirus, healthcare professionals are at the front lines of the big issues impacting the world. 

And while healthcare crises may differ widely in substance and severity, you can be sure they’ll have at least one thing common: they put a strain on the healthcare system’s ability to provide care. So how do practices find the medical staff they need in the middle of a crisis? And are there lessons to be learned for staff recruitment and retention more generally?

As the coronavirus pandemic stretched healthcare systems to capacity, finding and hiring medical professionals became mission critical for providers both big and small. 

Masks, surgical gloves, and coronavirus tests weren’t the only resources in short supply. Medical professionals were desperately needed to help contain the outbreak and treat the infected. Those who’ve found themselves in the thick of things say the experience has been an important lesson for how to recruit doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals—and not just during crises.

One section of the medical community that rushed to help fill gaps in the system was the nation’s tens of thousands of so-called locum tenens.

Locum tenens: Essentially, freelance doctors. The traditional use of locums is to fill in for doctors that are sick, on leave, or on vacation.

During the coronavirus pandemic, locums became a vital part of the solution to the country’s medical staff shortage.

Why? Because there was a huge jump in demand for locums. Hyr Medical, a platform that connects locums with healthcare jobs via an online matching platform, saw this spike firsthand.

President and founder Manoj Jhaveri says technology such as Hyr’s recruitment platform played a crucial role in accelerating patient care during the pandemic by expediting the connection of medical practitioners with critical open needs. You could post on the site and quickly be matched with doctors in the area or who were willing to travel.

Hyr’s recruitment story: Covering skills shortages across the country

As it swept the globe, overwhelming healthcare systems and requiring more doctors and nurses than were available to hospitals, labs, and surgical units, the coronavirus pandemic forced the medical profession to rethink how it manages current and projected staff shortages, says Jhaveri, who believes lessons will be learned from the experience. 

Chief among them? The distribution of medical skills around the country.

“There really is a raw shortage when looking at overall supply and demand of healthcare professionals across the United States. But one misses the main point if they consider the US in a monolithic way,” says Jhaveri. 

“What we really have in the US is a distribution of resources issue. Most metro areas are saturated with providers, whereas most rural areas are severely lacking providers, or they are medical deserts.”

Serving areas that are starved for resources is often where locums are most important. Such movable resources also provide for surge capacity during critical times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While the best use of locums during a crisis is to fill surge capacity needs, Jhaveri says locums can be used strategically when a practice is growing and needs to balance patient service with costs.

Jhaveri says practices can engage locums as a way to “try before you buy” and “audition” medical staff before making full-time offers.

But when hiring locums, employers need to understand their specific needs as employees and contractors, says Jhaveri.

“Most important to locums is receiving a really good rate of pay—they are 1099 workers, not employees, so they don’t receive benefits,” says Jhaveri.

Years ago, locums were often thought of as lower-quality physicians who couldn’t get a permanent job, says Jhaveri. But in the gig economy populated by Millennials and semi-retired practitioners, that’s no longer the case. 

Research suggests as many as 50,000 doctors work as locums in more than 90% of America’s healthcare facilities, providing care for around 7.5 million patients every year.

To find a good locum, Jhaveri says practices need to have a good understanding of the prospective practitioner’s needs—including availability, interests, state licenses, specialties, and the point they’re at in their career.

“Practitioners get dozens of calls every week, and many of them feel inundated by messages from recruiters that are not tuned in to their current needs,” says Jhaveri.

This is where technology can simplify and expedite the process. Online matching platforms let practices and practitioners control all elements of their own profiles and status—locations, availability, specialties, credentials, and rates.

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Dietitian Recruiting’s reminder: Take care of your medical staff during a crisis

Medical professionals at the front lines of a crisis are often putting themselves in harm’s way to help stop the spread of disease or provide urgent care during a natural disaster. 

While these doctors, nurses, and other professionals work tirelessly and selflessly for their patients, recruiters sometimes need to remind healthcare organizations not to neglect the needs of their employees, who are people too—people dealing with their own fears during a crisis.

Susan Stalte is the founder of Dietitian Recruiting, a recruiting and career coaching agency for nutrition professionals. She reminds healthcare employers to keep an eye on staff retention during medical emergencies and crises.

Speaking in March 2020, just after the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, Stalte says the biggest problem in retaining staff for healthcare companies was fear: “Fear of a lack of job security and fear in terms of risk to their personal health.”

To overcome such fears—which she says can arise in any healthcare emergency situation—Stalte recommends employers educate their teams on the changes being implemented to protect staff during the crisis.

For instance, during the coronavirus outbreak, Stalte says staff fears weren’t quelled by general email blasts or generic warnings about COVID-19. “Staff wanted to know what members of their company’s leadership team were doing in the moment to protect them.” 

As the world becomes accustomed to disruption from global events—whether natural disasters, pandemics, or economic downturns—job security is top of mind for healthcare staff. And to retain top talent means providing assurance.

Technology, especially real-time collaboration and communication tools, has a central role to play in such uncertain times. Collaboration tools enable employees to work from anywhere in the world. They can also help disseminate important messages to employees, providing them with response mechanisms and ways to join the conversation or request information, all of which combine to keep employees productive but also give them a sense of support. 

That’s why telehealth platforms not only enable an organization to service more patients, they also help medical staff stay safe while doing their jobs.

As the impact of the coronavirus began shutting down workplaces around the globe, Stalte says technology played a critical role in hiring and retaining staff.

“With the transition to more work from home, video conferencing software and instant messaging platforms were being used more frequently,” she says.

“Now more than ever, employers need to make their team members feel truly valued,” says Stalte. “Everyone in healthcare wants to know that they’re essential staff. Not feeling valued may contribute to a fear of layoffs. It’s the responsibility of the employer to make their team members feel secure in a time of uncertainty. Transparent and open conversations are needed between employees and employers.”

Beamery’s lesson: Beyond the crisis, remote areas will still be dealing with hiring challenges

In the middle of a healthcare crisis, experts warn that medical practices still need to be thinking long term—beyond the crisis itself and towards future staffing needs. And this is especially true for organizations in more remote areas of the country. These organizations are often dealing with their own hiring challenges based on geographic location.

Essentia Health is a healthcare provider in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Idaho. The company has more than 12,000 employees, including 1,500 doctors and credentialed practitioners. Talent acquisition technology firm Beamery has helped Essentia find staff for the regional medical provider.

“For Essentia, location has been an issue,” says Beamery’s VP of Marketing Ben Slater. “The HQ is based in the Midwest, where talent is limited. So, creating the right incentives is a focus for them.”

Slater says it can often be hard to fill a specific medical niche in remote areas, and during the coronavirus pandemic, these challenges were exacerbated.

“Populous areas have better access to talent; at a time when travel is limited, this is certainly a big advantage,” Slater said in the early weeks of the pandemic. At the time, Slater was anticipating that the crisis would have a knock-on effect on the ability of organizations in more remote areas to manage capacity.

Beyond the challenges of recruiting in a crisis, Slater says employers need to think about the types of candidates they’re trying to appeal to. Communication for prospective healthcare employees needs to be direct and concise. 

Essentia Health specifically likes to target people very early in their careers—including people who are still in med school—so that over time the provider can grow a relationship with these young practitioners.

While Essentia makes excellent use of in-person meetings with prospects–– including med school campus visits—technology such as social media, email, and video conferencing helps an employer expand its breadth of recruitment and helps with capacity issues by bringing “personalization at a larger scale,” says Slater, adding that automation and artificial intelligence are the drivers of personalization at scale.

“Technology can bring to the surface the most engaged or high-priority candidates so that recruiters can spend their time as effectively as possible,” says Slater. 

“Companies can also leverage technology to engage with large audiences of candidates in a highly individualized way, using data about their experience, as well as their level of interest in the company, to personalize the messaging automatically.”

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Comsort’s tip: Perception is key

Patrick Howie runs Comsort—a data analytics startup that aims to improve information dissemination and professional collaboration throughout healthcare organizations and provider networks. Howie says one of the biggest problems in finding and retaining staff in healthcare companies today is perception.

“Healthcare has been the most attacked industry by politicians on both sides for a decade now. As a result, many of the most talented people coming out of college don’t want to work in the industry,” says Howie. 

“Compounding the problem, the healthcare industry is no longer perceived as innovative. Most people think of innovation and they think the Silicon Valley high-tech firms who grab all of the headlines. As a result, most people are neither aware of—nor fully appreciate—the significant innovations throughout the healthcare ecosystem, ranging from drug discovery through to innovating service delivery options.”

Healthcare employers need to make people aware of the “amazing innovations and the positive impact they have on human health and happiness,” says Howie. He explains that prospective recruits need to be reminded of the increases in life expectancy over the last century that are the result of innovations in healthcare. 

Howie believes the 2020 coronavirus pandemic accelerated what we already knew about the role of technology in the healthcare hiring process: many professional roles can be done virtually.

“Instead of being afraid of employees slacking off when they aren’t in the office, we should recognize that most of the best talent want to work hard and do great things,” he says, encouraging healthcare companies to leverage technology to let workers choose the location that will enable them to be most productive.

“Yes, we need to stay coordinated and make sure communication channels are working well,” he says. ”But we should spend more time leveraging technology to tackle the hardest problems and less time trying to use technology as a way to enforce strict work rules.”

How will you hire in a crisis?

There’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on health systems around the world for decades to come, as healthcare providers rethink the way they prepare for and provide medical care during a crisis. 

Many of these lessons will revolve around the hiring (and retaining) of medical professionals. How we use this insight from innovative and forward-thinking healthcare companies will be key to learning how to better use technology and communication as integral parts of the staff hiring and retainment solution—both during a crisis and beyond.

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