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Retraining existing employees can help mitigate the effects of healthcare's workforce shortage

A healthcare organization with a bit of capital can invest in the workforce it already has to ameliorate the effects of a tight labor pool.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

The healthcare job market is pretty tight at the moment, due in part to ongoing nurse and physician shortages. These professionals have been exiting the workforce faster than they're joining it, and that has posed a challenge for providers as they seek to fill in the gaps.

One possible solution, thought, might be right under their noses.

Perhaps there's a receptionist in the organization who's interested in becoming a medical scribe or a licensed practical nurse. Maybe a registered nurse wants to move into an operating room setting rather than working in the maternity ward.

In cases such as those, a healthcare organization with a bit of capital can invest in the workforce it already has, paying for additional training and certifications for existing staff members who are looking to take a step up in their careers. If modern workforces are meant to be versatile, healthcare can take advantage of that versatility by offering training in the areas for which fresh applicants are scarce.

"We've heard, 'Hey, this is great, we can fill or own pipeline a little bit,'" said Matt Wolf, director and healthcare senior analyst at RSM, which provides auditing and tax consulting services. "It makes for happier, more engaged employees. This translates to better care.

"If you can invest a little money to train and upscale your employees, it raises their commitment and can reduce turnover costs," he said.

BARRIERS

While the physician shortage may get more attention, the nursing shortage has proven to be problematic for the industry as well. Some estimates place the nurse turnover rate at about 18 percent, and of those nurses, 90 percent leave voluntarily. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the RN shortage is expected to intensify as baby boomers age, and the need for healthcare grows.

One of the reasons nurses leave their jobs, said Wolf, is to pursue additional education.

"It can be tough to be a nurse," he said. "Scheduling is tough, and if they want to focus more on their family, that can be a consideration. But a lot of them want to go back to school. By offering training maybe you can retain that person and they stay on part time, so you're only down one-half of a person, and not a full person."

The barriers to implementing such a plan are mostly financial. Because the focus of healthcare is on medicine as a science, providers are largely open to the idea of maintaining and enhancing the education level of its workforce. But that takes money. According to Wolf, the no. 1 spend in healthcare is wages, and no. 2 is benefits. Those line items are increasing more quickly than reimbursement, so on the surface it seems counterintuitive to suggest growing those even faster.

What makes it worth it in the end is the return on investment.

"If we don't invest in our people, we will continue to lose them to other industries," said Wolf.

If funds are short for such an endeavor, allowing the workforce more flexibility may allow providers to find extra change in the couch cushions. Take the billing department, for instance. Rather than paying for office space and making billers all work in a centralized location, those employees -- who tend to do much of their work over the phone -- could instead work from home, and even work a shift that makes more sense for their lives.

This idea of cultural change management, and of a more flexible working culture, strengthens employee retention and saves organizations money -- which can in turn be used to retrain or educate the workforce to fill those pesky nurse and physician gaps.

COMING UP WITH A PLAN

How to go about doing this looks different for every provider, of course. Different organizations will have different positions they're trying to fill, and a different talent pool than other labor markets.

"Turnover for nurses can cost over $50,000, just for an entry-level RN, and that cost is the cost of finding and training a replacement," said Wolf. "Even if they're a trained RN, working with your documentation and in your culture, that's a process and it takes a lot of time, and that's a lot of expense right there."

One common strategy -- undertaken by, among others, Fairview Health in MInneapolis, Minnesota -- is to reach out to universities to set up outreach programs specifically for the organization's employees. On the administrative side, it's feasible to to give employees access to education and training options such as LinkedIn Learning or Coursera.

"Depending on what you're trying to do, it can be very cost-effective," said Wolf. "Although at this point it's still difficult to do some of that training if you're looking to hire some RN nurses, so definitely start out with existing local programs."

The emphasis on staff training can help sustain a healthcare organization's workforce through the ongoing nurse and physician shortages, which Wolf expects will continue.

"The labor market is not going to become looser," he said. "It will remain tight for the foreseeable future. There are some headwinds against this labor pool. And employees want flexibility in their work. That's a huge paradigm shifty, really for all employers.

"It's also an opportunity," he said, "because the preliminary research suggests that if you can create this environment where employees work on what they want to work on, where they want to work and when they want to work on it … that type of flexibility really pays dividends, and you have more engaged employees who are more energized and bring better ideas."

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com