Federally Qualified Health Centers battling issues with staffing, digital technology

A survey of executives find recruiting and retention are top challenges, along with improving the patient experience and expanding digital health options.

Federally Qualified Health Centers are serving more and more patients, and they are also struggling to recruit and retain staff, according to a new survey.

Those health centers are community-based providers serving patients in underserved communities. They are playing a greater role in healthcare

Sixty percent of health center leaders identified recruitment as a strategic imperative, according to a new report by Qure4U, a digital health platform. Nearly half (48%) of the leaders said hiring was a top challenge, while more than a third (36%) said burnout was a key factor keeping them from their goals.

The report incorporates findings from a March survey of 71 leaders of those health centers. The survey was conducted by Sage Growth Partners, a healthcare consulting firm.

Those health centers are community-based providers serving patients in underserved communities. They are playing a greater role in healthcare in recent years. In 2020, nearly 1,400 health centers served 29 million patients, nearly triple the number they served in 2000, according to data from the Health Resources & Services Administration. Put another way, about one in 11 Americans receives care from one of these health centers.

More than four in five (83%) of the healthcare leaders surveyed said their strategic plans were driven by expanding access to healthcare to underserved communities.

They also are keen to expand their digital health options. Most of the respondents (87%) said they were looking for a digital health platform solution that addresses a variety of needs.

At the same time, a vast majority (83%) of the leaders of federally qualified health centers said they were in the middle of the technology curve, according to the report. In assessing digital maturity, about three quarters of the respondents (76%) said their health centers were in the early stages.

Significantly, a quarter (25%) of the leaders said patients weren’t able to access digital technology, such as video appointments or forms that were online.

A federal report released earlier this year found disparities in access to telehealth that were apparent in minority communities. Black, Asian and Latino patients were less likely to use video telehealth services than white patients, the study found.

Nearly all federally qualified health centers (97%) offer telehealth services, and most (92%) provide a patient portal.

But some digital services aren’t as widely available. While more than half (59%) of executives said they offered digital check-in for patients, less than half offered digital payment collection (46%), self-scheduling (45%), or remote patient monitoring (42%).

Monica Bolbjerg, co-founder and CEO of Qure4u, said federally qualified health centers should be looking for comprehensive digital solutions that mesh with their electronic health record systems.

“Solutions from various vendors that don’t integrate with EHRs create more burden for patients and burnout for staff. The research confirms that, for FQHCs, a holistic platform is critical,” she said in a statement.

Looking ahead, recruiting and keeping new talent emerged as the top priority for leaders of federally qualified health centers over the next 12 to 24 months. The second-highest on the list was improving the patient experience.

Healthcare leaders also listed reducing no-shows for patient appointments and expanding care to the home, including remote patient monitoring, among their top objectives in the near future.