“I’m a little concerned,” I told my (former) editor, putting it as mildly as I could.
The company I worked for at the time had just announced plans to launch two new medical publications, in addition to a YouTube channel featuring videos that would be produced in-house.
The small editorial staff that was already stretched thin was going to be taking on a lot more work, which is what I pointed out before asking if there were any plans to hire more people. The response I got went something like this, “We’d like to, but frankly I’m too busy right now to interview, hire, and train a new person.”
An obvious (to me, at least) question hung in the air: If we’re too busy to even go through the hiring process to obtain much-needed help, how on earth would we be able to handle all of the added work coming our way?
I voiced my concerns, and was told that we’d just have to forge ahead, and that as soon as it was feasible, we’d get some help.
A quote from Return of the Jedi came to mind, “I have a bad feeling about this.” As it turned out, Han Solo was right, and so was I. It didn’t take long before staff burnout began to set in, and morale sunk to pretty low levels.
The thing is, no leader worth his or her salt ever truly believes that the “take on new projects now, worry about staffing issues later” approach is wise. But things tend to get in the way — like government mandates, hospitals being acquired, or publications being launched — that are out of their control, and they can become so focused on achieving the task at hand that issues like staffing take a backseat.
But what good leaders know is that staff can never take a backseat — especially during times like these.
And so it was no surprise that at the session led by Anthony Guerra at HIMSS — which sought to address how CIOs “are handling the combined challenges of Meaningful Use, ACOs, and ICD-10, all while facing a well-documented healthcare IT talent shortage” — the topic that clearly dominated the discussion was the workforce shortage.
The packed room of attendees didn’t really want to talk about ICD-10 or Meaningful Use Stage 2. They wanted to know what their peers are doing to hire — and retain — good people.
One CIO who had to quickly ramp up her staff sent a handful of people to a community college to take health IT-focused classes. “The supply is drying up,” she said, noting that this relatively quick fix was able to get her team over the hump, but she might need to seek out more solutions in the future.
A vice president of IS described the challenges he faced in staffing a 24-7 help desk, explaining that the colleges in his area didn’t offer the clinical training he was looking for. “We’re having trouble finding good people,” he said.
Another hospital executive talked about using consulting services to help fill spots — which isn’t an option for every organization. But with every comment, the themes were the same: the pool of talent is too small, and too many organizations end up having to come up with their own training solutions, or choose between IT and clinical operational experience.
“We’re all vying for the same resources,” said one attendee. “It’s really hard.”
The annual HIMSS Leadership Survey, which was released on the same day of the session, echoed these sentiments. For the first time in more than a decade, health IT leaders identified a lack of staffing resources — and not inadequate financial support — as the most significant roadblock to implementing IT. In the survey, 61 percent of respondents indicated they expect to increase their IT staff during the next year. The most common areas of need were clinical application support, network/architecture support professionals, and clinical informatics professionals.
Jennifer Horowitz, director of research at HIMSS Analytics, stated it was interesting to see that staffing resources was cited by the majority of respondents, “given the issue has traditionally been a financial resources one. We expect that, as organizations continue to invest in IT and hire to fill these positions, IT will become even more ingrained within the healthcare setting.”
But as we learned at the session, finding — and keeping — good people is no easy task.
In a recent interview with me, Linda Reed, CIO at Atlantic Health System, talked about how challenging it has been to hold on to staff members after a six-month period in which the organization moved an entire data center, brought on a new hospital, and upgraded all of its systems for Meaningful Use. Staff burnout, she said, is a “huge” concern. “If they don’t quit, they’re just exhausted.” To alleviate some of the pressure, Reed’s team has begun to offer flexible work hours and let staff members work from home on occasion. “We try to do the best we can, but there’s just so much.”
Staff morale is something that she has remained cognizant of — not just because it can be a long and expensive process to replace top talent, but also because she knows that good people are hard to find. And that in a marketplace like this, if someone isn’t happy, there are other options.