Article originally published in Electronic Health Reporter on June 1, 2022.

By Cindy Gaines, Chief Clinical Transformation Officer, Lumeon.

Reflecting on the past couple years, it’s become clear that staffing shortages have taken a toll on nursing physically, emotionally and mentally, leading to declining retention rates, inadequate resources, and, at times, concern for their mental health.

Staffing shortages are not just the result of a pandemic, but of an aging workforce. Hospitals are faced with the challenge of addressing the work environment not just in the context of a pandemic, but holistically.

Pain Points

Through the years, we have equipped nurses and care staff with equipment such as computers, pagers, tablets, and zone phones to help them connect with patients, family members, doctors, labs, radiology and outside services. This equipment is necessary for their work but has had unintended consequences. As nurses manage medications and juggle competing priorities, they are constantly bombarded with a world of distraction. This creates safety risks in the care environment.

Additionally, this technology has introduced service expectations created to support the patient and family experience. For example, a phone call must be answered within 3 rings—great customer service for the caller, but it takes the nurse away from the patient currently being cared for. At times, technology meant to support the care process has become a barrier between the nurse and the patient.

This stressful work environment is further complicated by very real staffing issues in our country. Demographic data suggests that the average median age of a nurse is 52 years old and that 20% of RNs are 65 years or older, meaning hospitals can expect gaps in staffing as this age group ages out and begins to retire. While this seems like an opportunity to usher in a new generation of young, fresh-minded nurses, nursing programs are unable to graduate enough people to supply this gap in the industry due to an overwhelming lack of resources.

These factors together have created the perfect storm of a care staff shortage.

Getting On the Right Path

Without a solution, staffing shortages will continue to disrupt essential care facilities and hospital operations. But now is not the time to approach this the way we have in the past. It is one thing for a nurse to pick up extra duties for a single day when a colleague is out of work, but quite another to sustain this extra workload long-term. Now is the time to think about how to do the work differently. Fortunately, automated technology opens the door to the possibility of reducing the burdens facing care staff, creating a system that ensures best care practices and executes every time.

But automation requires more than simply installing more point solutions in care facilities and hospitals. It is about understanding the workflows that exist today and identifying where there are opportunities to eliminate tasks, automate communication, coordinate activity to support the execution of best practices and create a personalized experience for the patient.

Bridging the Gap in Access

Thoughtful integration of automated processes is one way to alleviate the stress placed on nurses and care staff and reduce manual tasks. With the right solutions in place, tasks like virtual check-ins, scheduling and electronic paperwork flow seamlessly into the digital experience for both patients and staff. Automating the various branches of care coordination is a win-win situation for both patients and care providers. With nurses spending less time on manual tasks, they can provide more attentive care. In effect, the patient experience improves by becoming more efficient and accessible.

Elevating Clinical Support

A great example of this is the preoperative process. If not managed well, it can result in surgical cancellations, rescheduling, and, in effect, the hospital’s surgery throughput. Nurses spend a large amount of time cold-calling patients, transcribing patient information in the medical record, chasing labs, and reaching out to communicate with pre-surgery readiness instructions. All these time-consuming tasks are important to ensure patients are ready for their procedures, but do not allow nurses to practice at the top of their license.

We can better utilize valuable nursing resources by streamlining the preoperative process. Automation supports patients completing surgical intake assessments, discretely adds this data into the electronic medical record, and can even risk stratify patients by identifying low-risk individuals who can be fast-tracked virtually through the preoperative process. A virtual preoperative process can increase staff efficiency by 60%.

Digital automation frees up capacity for the administrative team to manage more patients, while at the same time allowing the nursing team to spend more quality time with higher-risk patients who need their attention.

More than a Trend

Healthcare workers are desperate for a change. Ignoring the innovative solutions that automation offers will only further the cycle of poor staff retention, job dissatisfaction, and ultimately, create more bottlenecks in the care process. With nearly 640,000 nurses nearing retirement age, committing to automation and encouraging digitization across the industry is more than a passing trend—it’s an essential step forward for the industry. Rather than let this crisis continue to worsen, investing long-term in thoughtful automation will help bring back the joy of nursing.