Although it undoubtedly has been a challenging year, some positives have come out of the 2020 crisis. As with all crises, we’ve been forced to grow into stronger, better versions and the healthcare sector is no exception. We cannot gloss over the COVID-19 pandemic nor the terrible toll it has had on lives and families, but we can take some hope for the future from the resilience and innovation shown by our healthcare workers.
Now, as the world looks towards a post-COVID future, we have a chance to rebuild our healthcare sector, extending the good developments and learning lessons from what’s occurred. In doing so, we will build the agility and adaptability needed to address the opportunities and challenges on the horizon.
New staffing approaches
COVID led to many healthcare organizations changing their traditional healthcare staffing approach. In New York, retirees were encouraged to come back, with expired health licenses quickly renewed. Military health professionals were also deployed to in-demand locations, and volunteers were encouraged to sign-up. In the UK, cabin crew were redeployed to work at the NHS Nightingale field hospitals - their existing first-aid skills and ability to perform under pressure were valuable transferable skills for the NHS (National Health Service). Likewise, a similar program was implemented in Sweden, where furloughed SAS airline workers were able to take a three-day course in hospital care, and then plug skill gaps in the Swedish healthcare system.
This highlighted how valuable an on-demand, contingent workforce is to healthcare organizations. When needs arise, such a workforce can be quickly upscaled to meet new demands and then downscaled when demand falls again. As a result, future hiring managers may be more likely to turn to former employees, contractors, recruits, or volunteers because of their COVID staffing experiences.
The rise of virtual healthcare
When the global lockdown occurred, patients used virtual, remote healthcare services to access their routine appointments and care. People were understandably cautious about attending a healthcare setting in person, but telemedicine ensured that care and diagnosis could stay on-track.
For example, the Regional Health Command Europe implemented a secure messaging service that enabled patients to talk privately with their medical staff. They could request appointments and referrals, renew prescriptions, get non-emergency healthcare advice, and find health education information.
With patients now used to virtual healthcare services, some services will continue to be available online. Patients may not have to attend for repeat prescriptions, for example. This will streamline services, allowing professionals to focus on tasks that critically need their input, and will also make healthcare more accessible for people (like disabled individuals) who otherwise may not attend in-person appointments.
Taking a contingent staffing approach will have a positive impact on the bottom-line too. Because staffing numbers are adjustable to upswings in demand (and vice versa), spend on staffing will become more cost-effective. It will also shift such spending from a fixed to a variable cost.
Digitizing and streamlining processes through automation will also free workers up for other tasks. Again, this makes staffing more cost-effective as staff can focus on more value-added tasks instead of mundane, time-consuming ones.
Finally, it can improve skills utilization (at a time when 39% of EU workers feel their skills are not fully used by their employer). In doing so, organizations make the most of every worker, increasing productivity, quality of output, and job satisfaction - as more workers are placed in roles that challenge and grow their skills.
The pandemic also boosted collaboration across different healthcare settings. This is especially true in the U.S. where before, healthcare was primarily competitive. When the pandemic struck, however, organizations had to unite against the public health emergency. Margaret Mary Health, a small rural hospital in Batesville, Indiana, was able to borrow doctors from another organization when theirs fell ill. In the UK, military logistics planners, alongside the NHS, have been assisting with the vaccine distribution efforts as well as administering the vaccinations themselves.
These bonds will hopefully continue beyond the pandemic, encouraging expertise and staff sharing - hopefully between urban and rural locations that tend to struggle for specialist skills.
Likewise, many companies in other sectors also stepped up to help however they could. Over 200 start-ups signed up to a list offering their products and services for free, from risk mitigation to gesture control and chatbots. Globus AI also offered its solution for free to healthcare organizations battling the virus.
Rapidly upscaling for the future
The ability to rapidly up and downscale to demand will help healthcare organizations better handle incoming challenges such as the risk of future pandemics and epidemics, as well as the aging population. The proportion of European people aged over 80 years is expected to rise from 5.8% in 2019 to 14.6% by 2100, putting additional strain on healthcare settings. Elderly patients often present with multiple, comorbid, and complex conditions, requiring a multi-disciplinary approach. They can also take up a lot of time and resources, so an aging population will exponentially increase the pressure on healthcare organizations.
To meet this demand, organizations will again have to get creative with staffing - by redeploying staff to where they’re needed most and upskilling them in response to changing needs. All while optimizing costs and ensuring every worker is used to their full potential.
A heightened mental health focus
A month before the pandemic hit the UK, the results of the NHS Staff Survey were released, with the highest levels of stress ever recorded among NHS staff. As COVID-19 rose in the UK and the NHS struggled to cope with needs, a clear focus on the wellbeing and mental health of staff arose. Daily check-ins, ‘home teams’, and mental health spaces were set-up to help healthcare workers cope with the extreme stress of battling the pandemic. For example, the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust set-up ‘wobble rooms’ for staff to decompress in, and West Middlesex Hospital implemented ‘energy pods’ for staff in the hospital’s indoor garden.
External organizations are also working to support healthcare workers. Meditation app company Headspace is offering free Headspace Plus access to all UK and U.S. healthcare workers. The University of California and UNC Chapel Hill deployed their psychiatric workforce to voluntarily support hospital workers.
The crisis highlighted the close links between a healthcare worker’s mental and physical health and their ability to do their work. It has also opened up more conversations about workplace stress and mental health conditions - and destigmatized it.
Transforming for the better
It’s undeniable that COVID has challenged the healthcare sector over the past year, but like all challenges, the industry has grown through it. And this has transformed it for the better, with more agile workforces, more cost-effective spending, and alternative ways of providing healthcare services. This offers a silver lining in what has been a terrible storm - although we will look back on 2020 with sadness, there have been some positives to emerge from it.