By Ashley Walsh, vice president of client services, iQueue for OR, LeanTaaS.
After a two-month decline, COVID-19 is rising again, in the form of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant.S. On top of managing perpetual variants, health systems will continue navigating the ongoing staffing shortages that have been exacerbated by pandemic-related case surges.
These escalating shortages of clinical staff cause massive challenges for health systems, including fluctuations in surgical case volumes and ongoing backlogs of deferred procedures – a vicious cycle that can be costly to health systems.
Health systems often turn to hiring or spending more to mitigate the strain of staffing shortages, but that is not always the best answer as demand and capacity will inevitably fluctuate. AI-powered technology can help bridge the fundamental gaps between supply and demand in health systems. Here are three ways AI-based technology can improve efficiencies and combat critical resource challenges heightened by COVID-19 patient surges.
- Optimize Scheduling and Communication
One of the biggest challenges health systems face during patient surges is scheduling inefficiencies. Health systems are often forced to temporarily close some of their surgical sites, then manage them as they re-open at different paces with specific location-based criteria for rescheduling cases. Clinic schedulers struggle to keep up with changes through back and forth calls, emails, booking forms, or fax messages. Instead of relying on outdated and inefficient communications, health systems can implement centralized AI-based scheduling tools.
Baptist Health Jacksonville, for example, successfully utilized an electronic case scheduling tool during a COVID-19 surge. In July 2021, the system had to shut down elective surgeries at three hospitals and two ASCs for nearly two months, and all non-critical surgical procedures requiring a bed needed to be rescheduled. To keep up with ongoing demand and changes in scheduling and regulations they used an automated scheduling platform that allowed in-app communication, streamlining the process across the entire health system. Instead of spending time with circular calls and emails, Baptist Health was able to quickly respond to scheduling changes, reduce errors and alleviate stress on an already overburdened staff.
- Enhance Workflows with Backlog Visibility
As mentioned, there have been a significant number of surgeries needing to be rescheduled from patient surges, leading to a growing backlog of cases. As hospitals struggle to match their limited OR staff and resources with this built-up demand, these staff and clinic schedulers are further limited and burdened by inefficient workflows. This leads to poor use of available OR time and space and higher costs for the health system overall.
A solution is to provide accessible backlog transparency. Backlog management solutions offer complete visibility into the surgeon’s backlog so that staff and schedulers can execute recovery strategies appropriately, including by shifting volume, extending hours, and building effective block schedules. By supporting their personnel in adjusting and reallocating resources quickly, health systems can improve workflows, maximize OR time and reduce extra work for staff.
At the onset of the pandemic, North Carolina-based Novant Health, a system that contains 138 operating rooms, worked to get ahead of its growing backlog of surgeries as much as possible. Leadership wanted to provide a transparent, user-friendly workflow that would create a marketplace of time where surgeons could release and claim open time to address their backlog of surgeries. After implementing an AI-based solution, they cleared their entire backlog, which had accumulated over 75-90 days, in just a further 90 days. After the initial waves of COVID, Novant continued to see stronger results than ever by using this tool, increasing overall volume and market share.
- Improve Case Length Predictability
Case duration accuracy has always been a critical key to running an efficient OR, but this becomes vital in times of crisis when there is no time to spare. Health systems can use case length accuracy tools that provide advanced data and analytics for analyzing and predicting case length.
When Oregon Health and Science University (OSHU) was hit with COVID-19 patient surges, they leveraged technology to increase predictability around case length and for overall capacity management. The state of Oregon has the fewest hospital beds per capita in the US and had already struggled with capacity issues before the pandemic.
Having accurate data and metrics around case length and available capacity, so that leadership can build accurate schedules and assign needed staff and rooms, has been vital for OSHU’s success. OSHU continues to successfully move through its OR backlog as staff can examine their progress through the technology and discover strategies that worked well and can be leveraged in the future.
Technology solutions are key to building agility and adjusting to today’s rapidly changing and unpredictable environment. Health systems that invest in them now will see significant improvements long into the future that will help combat the ongoing staffing issues they are experiencing.