How to Circumvent the Mass Healthcare Worker Shortage

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By Jeff Mosler, CEO of Nexa Receptionists Holdings, LLC 

Labor shortages are straining organizations large and small across nearly every industry. And there’s no place this has been felt more acutely than in healthcare. 

The healthcare industry has endured a lot over the past couple of years. On top of ever-evolving regulations and all new demands put on medical teams, healthcare leaders are now facing yet another challenge: a continuously shrinking workforce. What’s more, the shortage is only anticipated to increase dramatically over the next five years.  

Bleak news to be sure, but there are ways to offset at least a portion of the absent workforce to keep pace with the ever-increasing demands placed on healthcare organizations. 

Areas of healthcare most impacted

Though there’s been a mass exit among nurses and even physicians, they’re not the only ones leaving the industry. There’s also been a significant departure among lower-wage healthcare workers. In fact, according to Mercer’s External Labor Market Analysis, it’s estimated there will be a shortage of 3.2 million lower-wage healthcare workers by 2026. And, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare support occupations are projected for the fastest employment growth among all occupational groups. 

These vital staff members serve as medical assistants, patient intake coordinators, and healthcare administrators, to name a few, and they are critical to the patient experience and keeping operations running smoothly. Currently, they represent approximately 9.7 million individuals working in healthcare, and demand for these critical workers is anticipated to grow to more than 10.7 million in the next five years. Despite the growing demand, it’s also estimated that more than 6.5 million will permanently leave these roles in that same timeframe. 

On top of the labor shortage, healthcare organizations are also having to navigate hiring in an extremely competitive job market. You’re no longer simply competing with others in the industry. Now, you’re having to contend with major brands like Amazon that offer compelling signing packages. 

The upside is that with some of these roles, hospitals and providers aren’t limited to the availability of the local labor market, which is often the case with healthcare workers who have face-to-face patient interaction. This opens the door to utilizing outsourced medical services and technology to not only help fill the gaps, but also create a seamless patient experience.

Meeting the growing patient demand

When there’s a gap in healthcare support staff, the natural inclination –– and what often ends up happening –– is practitioners and providers pick up the slack. They often become the ones responsible for sending appointment follow-ups, confirming appointments, submitting prescription fills, or even completing patient intake information when the patient arrives. 

This places an additional strain on top of their already mounting workload and takes them away from patient interaction. This can lead to burnout, opens the door for more potential errors, and can impact the patient experience. 

Another possible solution is to outsource some of the support aspects of the patient journey such as patient intake and scheduling, medical answering, around-the-clock patient and caretaker online chat, and the list goes on. Many organizations were already turning to this approach, as well as automating processes with advanced technology, even prior to the current market challenges, as it provides an easy way to scale up or down quickly with little risk. But, is this solution right for every healthcare organization? 

Outsourcing healthcare support services 

If you’re struggling to keep pace with demand and have routine processes that could easily be offloaded to someone else, it’s a good idea to consider outsourcing your healthcare support and medical answering services. And certainly, if your organization is located in one of the regions –– like California or New York –– already experiencing an intense shortage, outsourcing these healthcare support services can be a lifeline for your organization, and your existing team. 

Take assessment of the routine processes you currently have in your organization. Can these processes easily be documented and handed off to someone in a virtual environment or do they require an in-person staff member? Are your patients asking for more communication options but you don’t have the staff to help manage that? 

For instance, if patients are calling in after hours or asking for ways to engage online, it might be time to consider outsourced healthcare answering services and technology like patient-facing portals that provide them 24/7 access. 

If you’ve established there may be a need for outsourced medical services, how do you align with the right partner? There are a few questions to consider in evaluating potential partners:

  • Do they align with what you need? Considering the list of repeatable processes you came up with, does the partner meet those specific needs? A good partner will be able to meet the unique needs of healthcare, offering 24/7 medical answering services, patient intake, patient follow-up, accurate documentation, etc. They should also be able to integrate with your EMR or EHR software and scheduling platform. 
  • Are they experts in the medical field? Make sure you aren’t outsourcing to generalists. This partner will often be the first interaction your patients experience and you want to ensure they know the right questions to ask and how to engage with the unique needs of patients ––and that they do so with empathy and understanding. If they don’t, this can make patients feel uneasy and increase the risk of errors down the line.
  • Are they HIPPA compliant? It may go without saying, but you’ll want to ask about their compliance and security protocols. How are they protecting sensitive patient information?
  • Are they omnichannel? Patients no longer come through just one channel. Today, you need to have omnichannel options including phone, online chat and even mobile text messaging. A good partner should be prepared to offer those.

The key is to do your homework. Not all outsourced service providers are created equal. Many have been burned by inadequately trained service providers and even AI-driven or automated bots. Look for a partner with defined expertise in the medical field, that uses actual humans to handle your patient engagement, and is bilingual. 

The bottom line is, healthcare leaders and providers must get to know the status of their current labor market and projections for the future, and use that insight to build up resources now. Otherwise, you run the risk of not being able to meet patient demand, and even putting an undue strain on existing staff. 

Jeff Mosler is the CEO of Nexa Receptionists Holdings, LLC where he leads business and operations for the company’s three brands: Nexa, Nexa Healthcare and Alert Communications. Prior to joining Nexa, Jeff served as COO for Main Street Hub (acquired by GoDaddy), and chief services officer for HomeAway/VRBO. He has also held leadership positions at Amazon and Microsoft.