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Automated staff messaging tools seen as boon by some, not by others

Filling nursing shifts at the last minute is a nearly constant battle for many unit managers. Some industry experts say automated workforce management tools can offer significant relief for this time-intensive challenge; others say the use of these tools should not be viewed as a best practice.

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At Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y., an automated alerting software system from MIR3, Inc. called Intelligent Notification was recently implemented to solve the common and persistent problem of staff coverage. Crouse worked with BroadBlast Managed Communications to implement the technology.

By using Intelligent Notification, nurse managers can now send a prepared, automated call out when additional nurses are needed. The system allows them to target specific groups, such as contracted per diem RNs, to avoid excessive overtime for full-time nurses. As a result, the hospital can call hundreds of nurses in minutes, reducing its dependence on time-consuming call lists and keeping trained healthcare professionals focused on patient care.

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Noting that ease of use is one of its best features, Christopher Hines, supervisor of telecommunications for Crouse Hospital, "I showed one nurse how to dispatch a prepared notification, and in less than a minute she had delivered her first message."

According to Kathy Lanni, senior vice president of BroadBlast, Inc., the tool immediately simplified the staffing process at Crouse. "A nurse manager can now just take a moment, record a message in her own voice and send it to all possible substitutes," said Lanni in a written statement. "The same nurse who previously spent as much as two hours per day on the phone is now free to focus on patient care."

Automatic notification is a popular feature offered by many workforce management firms, including Chelmsford, Mass.-based Kronos.

“Kronos automatically opens a shift when staff call in sick and their absences are marked in the system. This allows any staff member who is available and qualified to work that shift to volunteer to take the shift when notified by text message, e-mail or phone through Kronos’ mobile features,” said Brian Graves, the firm's global practice leader, healthcare.

Once an employee accepts the shift, it is automatically assigned, and a second message notifies employees that the shift has been filled. The work schedule is also automatically updated in the Kronos scheduling application.

“The benefit of automatic staff notification is that it reduces the amount of time to fill an open shift from hours to minutes allowing a manager to focus on other operational or clinical issues,” said Graves.

Despite its growing popularity, not everyone is a believer in the power of automated messaging.

Chris Fox, CEO of Omaha, Neb.-based solutions firm Avantas says the company’s workforce management tool Smart Square is capable of sending mass notifications via text, email and voicemail, but that their research has shown automated, mass communications to be the least effective way of filling an immediate need.
“With the right predictive model or forecast, the existence of last minute call-ins shouldn't be a surprise – though the specifics (department, skill) are largely unpredictable,” said Fox. “These call-ins should be assumed and posted as open shifts filled by flexible contingency resources well in advance. It’s not solely a matter of having a tool in place that will solve the problem. Tools need effective strategies to work properly.”

For situations where an immediate need does arise and there are no on-hand resources to fill it, Fox says the Smart Square system “provides a list of best resources to contact based on the likelihood that they will pick up the shift.”
According to Fox, the most effective method for filling an immediate opening is for a staff member to be contacted by someone whom their decision personally affects such as a manager or staff coordinator. A less effective method is for a staff member to be contacted by someone they do not personally know. The least effective method is automated communication.
“Mass communications are not an effective manner of filling same-day needs,” said Fox. “It is a flawed strategy that essentially creates white noise and is largely ignored by staff members. While our system contains this functionality, we do not view it as a best practice for same-day recruitment.”