Overcoming the Healthcare Staffing Shortage Through Back-Office Automation
Today’s healthcare staffing shortage, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic but years in the making, has left many hospitals and health systems scrambling.
To date, the shortage of front-line healthcare workers has received most of the attention, and for good reason: By 2025, the U.S. is likely to face a shortage of 446,300 home health aides; 95,000 nursing assistants; and 29,400 nurse practitioners, according to a report from consulting firm Mercer.
However, what is less appreciated outside of the healthcare world is the lack of many back-office workers and technicians that the industry is enduring. For example, the Mercer report predicts a shortage of 98,700 medical and lab technologists and technicians, and anecdotal reports indicate that providers are having difficulty finding workers to fill registration, payment, and billing roles.
This is occurring against the backdrop of a national labor shortage, which, combined with Covid burnout among the healthcare labor force, has affected providers of all types. Organizations are being forced to spend more on employee recruitment and retainment, sweeten benefits packages and increase signing bonuses. A recent study indicates that clinical staffing costs have increased by approximately $17 million annually for a 500-bed hospital. It is not sustainable when many hospitals are still operating at negative margins.
The staffing shortage has begun to touch patients, too. A CVS-Harris poll from earlier this year found that 51% of Americans say they’ve directly felt the effects of healthcare worker shortages. Among patients impacted by shortages, 45% said they had trouble scheduling appointments, more than 33% said their doctor was operating on reduced hours, 25% had treatments or surgeries delayed, 20% said their doctor had stopped practicing, and 13% said their health care facilities were closing completely.
To address these obstacles to patient care and efficient operations, hospitals and health systems don’t have time to wait for worker supply and demand to balance out to restore a return to “normalcy,” whatever that may look like tomorrow. In both the front and back offices, providers must look to technologies like artificial intelligence and automation to streamline processes, save dollars, and boost worker efficiency.
Front-office and patient-care innovations
When the pandemic began in the U.S. in March 2020, much of the world stopped and many employees across numerous industries began working remotely – but not front-line caregivers. Patient-facing workers donned personal protective equipment and soldiered on as many hospitals became overwhelmed. Now, as the pandemic enters a different phase, we have an opportunity to reflect on some of the innovations that helped patient care.
For example, many providers and consumers quickly ramped up their use of telehealth, and Medicare followed suit by expanding coverage. Given the demand for telehealth and its convenience for patients, it will be interesting to see how payers’ coverage of telehealth services evolves across the U.S. health system.
Similarly, the rapid development, production, and approval of the COVID-19 vaccine highlighted the healthcare industry’s ability to innovate under duress. Although researchers had been studying and working with messenger RNA vaccines for decades, it took a global health crisis to spur the innovation that brought for the first time delivered mRNA vaccines to the public.
To continue advancing patient care, Medicare and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will need to continue working closely with the industry to accelerate the development of low-cost portable devices and innovative new drugs.
Greater productivity through back-office automation
Many hospitals are struggling to attract and maintain back-office workers who have gotten a taste of remote work and are not exactly eager to return to a workplace that may bring them into contact with lots of sick people. Indeed, a recent report indicated that 1/3 of hospital revenue cycle departments are understaffed by more than 20 positions.
This back-office worker shortage has prompted many hospitals to explore automation for repetitive tasks, such as claims status. However, not every aspect of the revenue cycle can or should be automated. Rather, hospitals should employ a data-driven approach to identify which processes will deliver the most efficiency and return on investment through automation, such as automating claims status reviews. Automating this process has been shown to reduce costs to $1.54 per transaction from $13.66 with a 1,100% productivity increase [link to cite statistic].
The thin margins that hospitals operate on offer little room to increase healthcare workers’ pay, so for most, automation is where they will make up for the staffing shortage. Essentially, hospitals have no option but work smarter, simply because their workers do not have the capacity to work harder.
Ultimately, the healthcare staffing shortage is likely to persist for the next 5-10 years. In the meantime, providers will need to explore automation to make up for lost workers while gaining efficiencies and cost savings.
About Kimberly Hartsfield
Kimberly Hartsfield is EVP of Growth Enablement at VisiQuate, a provider of advanced revenue cycle analytics, intelligent workflow, and AI-powered automation.