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Using Technology to Manage Short Notice Shift Vacancies in Healthcare Organizations

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many times when it has been necessary to manage short notice shift vacancies due to staff contracting the disease or self-isolating after having come into contact with an infected person. For many healthcare organizations, managing short notice shift vacancies is a challenge.

Despite healthcare organizations having incorporated pandemic management planning into emergency preparedness plans, the aggressive nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken many by surprise. The later development of symptoms and the extended incubation period of the virus (compared to seasonal flu) means that a greater number of people can be infected due to carriers going about their normal lives without realizing they are contagious.

Consequently when people start experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19, they do so in vast numbers. This has resulted in many hospitals and healthcare facilities being suddenly overwhelmed with critically ill patients requiring intensive care treatment. In response to the demand, hospitals have cancelled elective surgeries, reassigned healthcare workers to ICU departments, brought physicians out of retirement, and allowed medical school seniors to graduate early in order to bolster the workforce.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Healthcare Workers

In April 2020, a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 19% of all infected people in the United States were healthcare workers – the majority of whom reported that their only (known) contact with an infected person was in a healthcare setting. At the time, the 19% statistic accounted for 9,282 healthcare workers who were unable to work and support their colleagues on the front line. Since the study, many more healthcare workers have been infected.

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The consequence of such high rates of infection among healthcare workers is that already-stretched hospitals become further stretched. Not only are infected healthcare workers unavailable to work, colleagues with whom they have been in close contact should self-quarantine in order to avoid spreading the virus among other healthcare workers. This creates a problem with regards to staffing levels, with nursing managers trying to find replacements for vacant shifts – often at short notice.

Using Technology to Manage Short Notice Shift Vacancies

Technology has played a significant role in helping healthcare organizations maintain operations during the COVID-19 pandemic and provide telemedicine services to patients. In the context of managing short notice shift vacancies, technology has also been put to good use by some healthcare organizations in order to reduce the time it takes to find replacements for vacant shifts and ensure Intensive Care Units are adequately staffed.

The “technology” is more of a capability of a mass notification solution that supports database segmentation so that nursing managers can solicit the availability of only staff members with the appropriate qualifications. The request for availability is sent from the mass notification solution and delivered to recipients´ mobile devices by SMS text. The message has a question and answer format recipients reply to using the keys on their mobile devices – for example:

Two RNs required for late shift in ICU.

  • Press 1 if available today
  • Press 2 if available later in the week
  • Press 3 if self-quarantining this week

The opportunity to answer the message closes as soon as two RNs have indicated their availability for that day´s late shift in order to prevent nursing managers receiving callbacks from available staff throughout the day. However, those that have indicated they are available later in the week are recorded on the notification solution platform, while those who have indicated they are self-quarantining are temporarily removed from group texts.

A Simple Solution that Enhances Nursing Efficiency in Multiple Use Cases

Using technology to manage short notice shift vacancies in this manner is simple, yet effective. Sending a request for availability via a mass notification solution is as simple as writing a text message, plus the opportunity exists to compose templates in advance to save time sending subsequent messages. As the requests for availability are send by SMS text, there are no apps to download and every available RN will receive the message regardless of what type of mobile device they own.

Furthermore, short notice shift vacancies do not only occur in ICU departments. Every department of a healthcare facility can experience short notice shift vacancies from pediatrics and psychology to housekeeping and environmental services. Consequently there are multiple use cases for this capability of a mass notification solution – not only during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also for when healthcare organizations return to more familiar operations.