Over the Winter, something happened to urgent care centers. After years of rapid growth, scores of urgent care centers closed down. The problem wasn’t due to lack of demand—on the contrary, the rapid spread of Omicron sent patients seeking consultations and COVID testing to urgent care centers in unprecedented numbers. It was a shortage of qualified healthcare workers that forced these closures, leaving patients and administrators equally out of luck.
Rising demands by employers, staff burnout, low pay, illness, options, and re-evaluation of personal priorities are just a few of the root causes behind “the great resignation” of 2021, across all sectors. But in urgent care, we find a uniquely pronounced imbalance between the value of the job that workers do and the degree to which we appreciate and compensate them.
Omicron made a bad situation worse
At the height of Omicron, 700,000 new COVID cases were recorded per day. Daily demand for COVID testing soared into the millions, and ICU beds reached close to full capacity nationwide. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate fell to 3.9%, making finding qualified staff even harder for an industry which had already lost one in five of its workers since the pandemic began. Finally, the easy transmissibility and short incubation period of Omicron dramatically increased infection amongst urgent care workers.
This powerful confluence of forces put an unprecedented staffing squeeze on urgent care centers. In response, many began limiting operating hours and opening EMT schools to train more staff. Ultimately, a great number of understaffed urgent care centers were forced to temporarily close due to lack of workers.
It’s tempting to blame all of urgent care’s woes on COVID. But in truth, the pandemic was merely a breaking point for problems that have been building in urgent care operations for years. While the sector’s rapid growth over the past decade has created new avenues of employment for qualified healthcare workers, the very nature of urgent care has also put severe pressure on them. Already facing burnout before the pandemic, urgent care workers were hit with a relentless workload, an ever-present danger of infection, and chronic stress both at work and at home.
These workers looked around and saw changes in the American employment landscape. They saw jobs aplenty, offering convenient remote work arrangements and better pay. They also saw other healthcare workers getting sick and dying or losing family members to COVID. Suffering from empathy overload, many reconsidered their priorities and concluded—”it’s just not worth it.”
I’ve been deeply involved in urgent care for more than 15 years and have observed both the banes and the blessings that growth has bestowed upon the sector. Frankly, it’s time we make some changes. Now that —knock on wood— the worst of Omicron is behind us, we should reflect on what’s driving our MAs and radiological technologists (RTs) away, and what we can do to build back better going forward.
Here are three of those things:
1. Pay our Medical Assistants what they are worth
We need to reset how we think about medical assistant compensation. An average urgent care center employs at least five MAs, who execute vital clerical and clinical work, like collecting patient information, checking vital signs, starting IV’s, administering vaccines, and more. But the median annual wage of MAs stands at just over $35,000—barely more than the family poverty threshold.
Is it really any wonder that the average Medical Assistant (MA) lasts only 1-2 years?
Urgent care is a business, and operators have a responsibility to manage costs so that the business can price its services competitively and still make a profit. But we don’t just make widgets. We provide a vital service that impacts and saves lives in our communities. That service is manufactured and delivered in large part by medical assistants. It’s time we start regarding and compensating them as the sine qua non that they are.
2. Build programs to attract and retain medical assistants
132,000 more medical assistants will be needed before 2030. If we want more young people to join our industry, we need to build them a golden bridge to cross over and join us. We can establish agreements with junior colleges and vocational schools, for instance, to provide the clinical training that is most relevant for urgent care. We can provide tuition assistance and reimbursement programs to those who can not afford those programs. We can also create and enhance staff development programs that give our MAs a path forward— to clinic management positions, for example— so they can realize a better future. Salary should be the third or fourth most important thing about a job, not the first.
3. Cross-train RTs to do MA work
Another great strategy to leverage your staff is to cross-train RTs to do MA work. This allows increased flexibility and cross-cover opportunities within a clinic and keeps your RTs engaged and busy. For this strategy to work, you need to look for the right profile. The best RTs for urgent care are those who love patient contact and want to do more than just take radiographs.
4. Consider omnichannel modes of care
Urgent care is not just about the front door of a clinic. The industry is rapidly shifting to include telemedicine, asynchronous chat, wearable devices, and remote monitoring. These new technologies and treatment modalities offer us the opportunity to provide patients with better care, and also to take pressure off medical staff. Reducing the time (and infectious risk) of face-to-face interactions means restoring a more manageable workload to medical assistants without compromising the level of care we give to patients. That, in turn, will reduce burnout and help retain staff longer than the dismal interval we have today.
If we want to allow urgent care as a treatment modality to continue to grow and improve, we need to learn how to honor the front-line staff that makes it possible. Urgent care is not just a business, and our workers are not just cogs in the machine. We are in the business of caring for human beings. Let’s start doing a better job of that within our organizations.
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