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Covid-19 and the challenge of provider staffing: What we know

A novel coronavirus that has essentially quarantined our world is presently reshaping our relationships with one another, our government, and our healthcare systems, and touching virtually every aspect of our lives. 

I would venture to say that each person has asked himself/herself, “What will our world look like as we emerge from the threat of COVID-19?” 

This question, while unsettling, is very thought-provoking and interesting. As history tells us, crisis moments present great opportunities for the future. It is very obvious that our world crisis has spurred creativity—in fact, creativity has become a force for survival. 

Whether it be creativity in healthcare, supply chains, music and arts, hospitality, or education, creativity is and will continue to be a necessity not only to survive in the current environment but also to thrive in the future.

As an emergency physician who has spent a career in the hospital setting, I have seen the ongoing challenges of personnel staffing—be it nursing, physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, or other ancillary staff. In fact, the response to the ongoing crisis just further displayed a key insight: hospital staffing needs to mirror demand.

During the past few months, hospitals have been severely understaffed to handle the crisis. On the other hand, providers, such as ASCs and outpatient clinics, have furloughed clinicians due to decreased demand for routine, and even emergent, healthcare needs outside of COVID-19.

As many states start the process of reopening, healthcare providers are now faced with questions such as:

1.     What will be the volumes in emergency departments, outpatient surgery centers, med-surg hospital units, outpatient clinics, etc. in a post-COVID-19 world?

2.     How will the transition to higher utilization of TeleHealth services impact current staffing models throughout our healthcare system?

3.     What will the ratio of physicians to advanced practice providers look like moving forward?

4.     In a world economy that has been reset, how do I contain staff costs while providing optimal service? 

The answers to these questions are hard for anyone to answer effectively. Many of these decisions are likely to be made by a “gut feeling” or loosely based on prior experience. 

Human intuition, although essential, is limited. There is opportunity for our industry to leverage technology to help find the answers.

In healthcare, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) has been elusive for many years. But what if now it is the time to deploy this powerful technology to help address the many unknowns around supply and demand in healthcare?

Designed by some of the top data scientists in the world, an innovative AI technology is the creative solution needed.  By predicting demand, distributing resources and optimizing schedules, this machine learning software answers the questions posed above in a way that is practical and can be deployed by existing resources without imposing on IT teams. The solution utilizes machine learning algorithms that learn from your historical data to determine the best shift lengths and staff coverage to meet your organization’s expected demand.

In a specific case study, a large physician group was able to save 100 hours a month of mid-level provider hours by leveraging insights from the models that allocated appropriate staffing without hindering quality patient care.

This solution is now being made available to healthcare providers across the U.S. with the launch of a new technology venture: Polaris Health.

When I was introduced to the Polaris technology, I knew I had to jump on board. As a clinician, I have personally experienced the frustration of being given suboptimal schedules that don’t support a healthy work-life balance. As an operator, I understand the difficulty in balancing care coverage while maintaining cost efficiencies.

Our world has been turned upside down by COVID-19. We need the right number of clinicians in the right place at the right time, no more and no less. Cost efficiency will continue to be a bullseye focus for healthcare executives concerned about survival in the aftermath of the crisis. Success will be attained by those organizations willing to embrace a “new approach” to personnel staffing. This requires flexibility in schedule modeling and pliability in resource distribution.

We do not have the luxury of being resistant to change. We must implement innovative, creative strategies to survive our unimaginable challenges. As Einstein noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Dr. Sam Clemmons is an emergency physician and CEO of Polaris Health.