Every year, hospitals experience a surge of patients during flu season and work harder to make sure they are equipped to meet demand. The 2017–2018 flu season was especially grim, with influenza-like illness and hospitalization rates reaching record-breaking levels, resulting in 178 flu-related pediatric deaths.
Even though flu season comes every year, there is little hospitals can do to predict how great that demand will be. Nor can they predict when the demand will hit—some months will naturally hit harder than others. This year, January saw the most hospitalizations, even though the previous flu season had been the worst in February, and the season before had been the worst in March. Specialists are even saying that the worst is yet to come: a theoretical flu epidemic is on the horizon, which will require cooperation across the healthcare industry to quell.
Clearly, the U.S. needs its hospital workers now more than ever. Doctors, nurses, accountants, lab technicians—all are vital. And all are just as susceptible to the flu as the patients they serve. What’s more, the U.S. is facing a physician shortage, currently predicted to reach anywhere from 40,800 to 104,900 by 2030.
With so much uncertainty in future, the time is now to prepare. Your hospital needs to prepare a strategy to ensure that no matter how great the demand or scarce the labor, you are always staffed enough to ensure an excellent patient experience. Here are four steps to forming the perfect staffing strategy for the unpredictable:
- Take stock of what you have.
Look at your current flu season staffing plans. (That is, if you have one. If not, there’s no time like the present.) Now ask yourself these questions:
- What staffing agencies are you currently working with?
- Have you done business with locum tenens agencies before?
- How was your experience?
- Did the agency deliver on time?
- Were staff members up to the task for which they were hired?
It’s also a good idea to review what you are doing to prevent any loss in staff. Are you keeping your staff happy enough that they won’t leave you for another hospital right in the middle of flu season? Are you providing the training, direction, equipment, and other resources they need to stay above water? If you demonstrate an interest in your staff’s professional development, they’ll be much more likely to stick with you through the hard times. You can’t prevent them from taking time off for health, family, or emergencies, but you can make sure that they’re eager to return to work.
- Review your needs.
You should be able to determine your current staffing situation by asking yourself the following questions:
- How well are you currently staffed?
- When you need locum tenens staff, how quickly do they arrive on site ready to work?
- Were there any times last flu season when you were especially understaffed?
- How big is your budget for staffing? Bigger than last year’s? Smaller?
- Make a plan.
Based on what you have, what you need, and your past experience, make a plan. Set a number of extra staff members you believe you’ll need, and do so by department—everything from surgery to the lab, pediatrics to the ICU. Then raise that number, just in case. Remember, the purpose of the plan is to be ready for the unanticipated.
Your plan should involve your hospital’s vendor management system (VMS) and making sure it is operating at its best. Before times of need arise, verify that your VMS is doing the following:
- Increasing visibility among your various departments and their hiring needs and practices
- Drawing from a larger pool of locum tenens workers to fill staffing vacancies quicker
- Using a vendor-neutral practice to promote competition among staffing agencies, ensuring you get competitive prices
- Automating processes like billing, invoicing, approvals, etc.
The sooner you recognize your needs and start meeting them, the more easily your staff will transition into high-stress situations common during flu season. Establish a habit now of working with hiring agencies in a positive way, and those habits will serve you, your staff, and your flu-inflicted patients well down the road.
- Review and adjust your plan.
It won’t do to make the plan and forget about it. Before flu season begins in October, make sure that everything is on course. Have you had to adjust the hiring budget? Will you need more staff than you initially estimated? Review your plan every two to four weeks. Things will grow clearer as your deadline approaches.
If you’ve planned sufficiently, it will be much easier to adjust your plan when the need arises during flu season. Watch the CDC flu season forecast regularly for an idea of incoming surges in hospitalization.
Flu season may come every year, but it’s anything but predictable. As flu cases surge and staff numbers fall, a well-formed staffing plan will ensure that you continue providing an excellent patient