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How health systems can use AI to overcome staffing shortages


AI is the solution for assisting hospitals with managing operating room backlogs and overall efficiencies. Some use predictive analytics to optimize scheduling to slash patient wait times.

Throughout the country, health systems are facing growing staffing challenges, which reached new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic. The increased demands on healthcare from the pandemic left many frontline staff feeling burned out.

Nicole B. Thomas

Nicole B. Thomas

Even when COVID-19 enters the endemic stage in the U.S., the staffing impact remains as one of the biggest challenges in our post-pandemic future.

According to the American College of Healthcare Executives, hospital CEOs recently reported that staffing concerns have overtaken financial concerns for the first time since 2004. Patients are also taking notice, with more than half of all Americans saying they’ve directly felt the impact of staff shortages, from canceled appointments to delayed surgeries.

Sanjeev Agrawal

Sanjeev Agrawal

While we can’t pretend there’s any “magic wand” that we can wave to solve these challenges, we can take a page from leading health systems that are turning to innovative technology as a solution.

Here are three key lessons learned from Baptist Health, a health system that successfully leveraged artificial intelligence (AI) during the height of the pandemic to help overcome staffing challenges in the operating room.

1. Don’t try to hire and spend your way out of the staff shortage

With the staffing shortage seeing no sign of improving, hospitals need to learn how to do more with fewer staff members. Unfortunately, many hospitals are trying to hire and spend their way out of a staffing shortage, which is like applying a bandage to a gushing wound.

Instead, hospitals can leverage AI to address and mitigate staffing shortages in operating rooms.

With the help of predictive and prescriptive analytics, OR and clinic schedulers can closely manage backlogs and streamline the scheduling process across the entire health system. Tools such as backlog management technology give staff insight into which surgeons are available and credentialed to perform surgery at different locations, and what criteria each surgical location has for booking cases at a given time.

Predictive technology tools provide a means for schedulers to be updated on quickly changing circumstances and to respond to them by immediately scheduling cases when capacity is available. Less staff doesn’t have to mean a disorganized OR. Instead, health systems should focus on equipping existing staff with the right tools to help them work more efficiently.

2. Manage unpredictable capacity demands with AI

The hard truth is that unpredictable capacity demands are driving a vicious cycle. For example, when there is no inpatient bed capacity and surgeries need to be postponed for months, costs will rise, and staff will get burned out. If capacity demands are not proactively managed, this cycle continues unabated.

Many hospitals are identifying the issue and turning to AI to help predict and manage capacity. Hospitals can stay ahead of unpredictable circumstances by using scheduling and backlog management tools.

Using various AI tools to their advantage, hospitals can lower overhead costs and save staff time and effort by streamlining repetitive tasks. When staff have more time to do their job – and the tools that make their jobs easier – you see burnout levels decrease.

3. Even with AI, success depends on effective communication

The beautiful thing about AI is the tools can be used to improve what humans already do best, such as communication.

Every hospital runs on effective communication. However, when staff members are overwhelmed and overworked, that communication can easily slip, and levels of efficiency rapidly decrease. Without knowing the schedule of their colleagues, staff members are operating individually rather than working as a cohesive unit.

By implementing tools that give OR staff insight into which surgeons are available when, and for how long, staff members are no longer in the dark and can make intelligent scheduling decisions.

AI-based solutions can provide a single source of truth for staff members, resulting in transparent, ongoing, and up-to-the-minute communication, alleviating the chaos of not knowing which colleagues are free at any given moment. This information also helps staff at all levels collaborate to make informed decisions.

The payoff of implementing AI

The payoff for harnessing the power of AI is well worth it. For Baptist Health, this newly implemented backlog and smart scheduling smart tool, combined with a community-centered culture that valued collaboration, yielded an 11.1% increase in Prime Time Utilization (PTU) from Q1 FY21 to Q1 FY22.

The translation: increase revenue, decreased burnout, and increased quality in patient care.

Baptist Health has been able to help patients and staff alike by introducing AI into everyday hospital functions and is now better equipped for any unpredictable patient surges in the future.

AI is the solution for assisting health systems with staffing challenges, managing OR backlogs, and overall efficiencies. These innovative tools are here to change the way hospitals operate, and lift the burden on hospital staff simultaneously. Like Baptist Health, many health systems already use AI for various functions.

Some are breaking barriers to operating room utilization by dropping abandoned block time, while others use predictive analytics to optimize scheduling to slash patient wait times.

However the tools are being used, AI provides methods to improve hospital functions – giving staff time back in their day to be used where truly needed and lifting the burden of being overworked, which leads to higher satisfaction levels and increased retention.

By Nicole B. Thomas, FACHE, President, Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville, and Sanjeev Agrawal, President & COO at LeanTaaS

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