June 22nd, 2020 | Sterling

Resilience and Remedies: Healthcare Hiring and COVID-19

2020 dawned, as every new year does, full of possibility. Healthcare hiring professionals from hospitals and healthcare staffing companies to post-acute and long-term care facilities planned for a busy and productive year.

By early March, it was clear that this year was not going to be “business as usual.” Healthcare organizations in the United States had watched the spread of COVID-19 across Asia and Europe, dreading its arrival on American shores.

As the scope of the pandemic became apparent, healthcare organizations did everything they could to prepare and scale up to be ready to support their communities in what would eventually become one of the biggest tests of their lifetimes.

The severity of the pandemic varied across the country, hitting dense urban areas harder at first. But eventually, there were cases, and deaths, in every state. No community or healthcare organization was left untouched or unaffected.

Learn about Sterling’s customized Healthcare solutions at sterlingcheck.com/healthcare.

Healthcare staffs up

In a matter of days, it became apparent that COVID-19 was going to have a huge impact on healthcare systems. The pandemic was creating scenarios of a magnitude that no healthcare organization had seen in at least a century.

State and local governments temporarily modified myriad regulations in order to help deploy professionals to hot spots quickly.

Several hospital representatives credit their resilience during the pandemic to the fact that they acted proactively. They executed long-planned continuity strategies that included accelerated hiring programs, streamlined the onboarding process, and redeployed existing staff to areas under duress.

Hospitals and post-acute organizations looked to their background screening providers for help to meet the increased demand, new regulatory requirements, and abbreviated turnaround times.

Planning ahead for agility

For years, Sterling had made ongoing investments in automation and technology in order to optimize background screening and onboarding. In addition, the company’s business continuity plan (BCP) allowed it to continue serving our clients through a crisis.

“A critical feature of our BCP was enabling secure remote work around the world,” said Val Poltorak, General Manager of Sterling’s Healthcare and Life Sciences division. “Our global workforce of approximately 5000 people transitioned quickly and efficiently to remote work. Concurrently, our technology enabled us to fulfill criminal searches in over 98% of US jurisdictions.”

One of the first requests Sterling fielded was from a respected children’s hospital that does critical work in its community. The organization needed to reallocate team members to work with pandemic patients. Sterling’s Healthcare team was able to quickly step in and assist with the management and oversight of the hospital’s drug and health screening program for new hires, therefore freeing up the existing staff to work with COVID-19 patients.

Each day, there were new requests from companies ranging from healthcare staffing companies and single-location hospitals to multi-state healthcare systems, all looking to screen large numbers of medical professionals.

Rapid-response programs established

At one point, the state of New York mandated that hospitals must double their capacity, hence requiring more staff. One of the largest healthcare systems in New York City, which is already a Sterling client, contacted the Healthcare team immediately. In a matter of hours, Sterling had a screening program in place to handle the increased number of candidates, helping to onboard the additional resources in record time, and allowing them to care for more COVID-19 patients.

In another instance, a national healthcare staffing company needed to onboard thousands of emergency response nurses to be deployed to pandemic hot spots across the country. Sterling was able to scale up the screening process and meet the time-to-hire requirements.

One industry professional shared with Poltorak that the hiring spike its organization planned for to take place mid-year had already happened by April.

Additionally, healthcare talent management professionals had to confront new challenges, and rethink and reinvent their hiring programs to include virtual interviews, contingent starts, and more contract employees in order to adapt to the constantly shifting landscape.

Nurses played a critical part in the response to COVID-19. In an article entitled, COVID-19 and Its Impact on Nursing and the Nurse Licensure Compact, Jim Puente, MS, MJ, CAE, Director, Nurse Licensure Compact, National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), spoke with Sterling about the short and long term effects of the pandemic on the profession.

Keeping healthcare teams safe and healthy

Increasing patient loads and new hiring practices weren’t the only challenges healthcare organizations faced. Keeping current employees healthy and safe, supplied with sometimes scarce personal protection equipment (PPE), dealing with scared employees, and higher-than-usual turnover were all concerns that surfaced during the crisis.

“Over the last several months, I’ve spoken with dozens of healthcare talent management professionals, and to a person, they all concurred that employee and patient safety always were and always will be their number-one priority,” shared Poltorak.

Organizations implemented new safety and health procedures to make sure employees were protected as much as possible. Visitors were either limited or forbidden. They adapted a variety of testing methods for employees, ranging from temperature scans upon arrival, oral or nasal tests, and online-access screenings with questions they must answer before returning to work each day.

Industry leaders were deeply concerned because they saw their employees stretched to the max, weary, and burned out. They had to develop ways to keep teams motivated. Luckily, local communities showed tremendous support for frontline healthcare workers. In New York City, for example, every night at 7 p.m., people across the five boroughs showed their appreciation by cheering, clapping, banging pots and pans, and loudly thanking healthcare workers. That tribute continues to this day.

Shifting roles and furloughs

As the industry scaled up the front lines, another shift was taking place. Elective procedures and surgeries, which are oftentimes the revenue-generating engines for healthcare companies, stopped in all but the most dire cases. This left many organizations with large numbers of employees with little or no work.

Redeployment and retraining of existing resources were critical. In many cases, it allowed companies to keep their employees working at a time when unemployment started to soar.

Some companies regrettably had to furlough some employees. Others were able to deploy and retrain some staff to assist in other COVID-related areas.

Most organizations had diligently mapped out plans, including specific furlough dates with no more than 13 weeks. Some had employees take assigned time off, and others had programs that carefully aligned with government-funded programs to ensure there was little or no loss of income. As an alternative, some organizations implemented temporary salary reductions in order to keep the entire staff intact.

Overall, healthcare hiring professionals agreed that while they continued to hire front-line positions, all other positions were put on hold.

The initial curve flattens

Although severity of the pandemic has been based on geography and population density, most health experts agree that the United States is emerging from the initial wave of the pandemic.

As the initial wave of COVID patients subsided, healthcare organizations turned an eye toward bringing elective surgeries back, as well as their furloughed employees.

“Organizations I’ve spoken with shared that their talent teams met either daily or weekly to review current needs, open roles, and how they can bring back furloughed employees, as well as justifications for why they’re bringing them back,” said Poltorak. “They all acknowledged, though, that it can be quite a complex task.”

A key consideration in employees returning to work is safety and testing. Companies either implemented, adapted, or strengthened the testing practices they had adopted months ago to continue indefinitely.

Restoring patient confidence

As a result of COVID-19, patients were putting off elective surgeries as well as wellness visits and regular appointments. Healthcare organizations realized they had work to do to restore patient confidence, to assure patients they could safely interact with their doctors and come to the hospital.

“Many healthcare organizations said they started sharing on their websites, in social media messages, and in advertising the lists of safety procedures and precautions they had put in place to protect staff and patients from COVID-19, all in an effort to show the public the lengths they were going to in ensuring their safety,” said Poltorak.

Rise of telehealth

Some patients had tried “telehealth” appointments with their physicians, but until the pandemic, the method was not widely embraced by the industry.

“Many hospitals and health systems who are Sterling clients quickly increased their telehealth services as a way to continue to serve their regular patients,” Poltorak stated. “Volumes increased dramatically in a matter of days, and patients seemed to like the practice due to its simplicity and ease of use. It was definitely a way for these firms to keep up their ambulatory business.”

Industry professionals anticipate a wider acceptance of telehealth and telemedicine going forward. “Patients have tested the waters, and many like what they see,” Poltorak added.

The road ahead

One of the biggest concerns for healthcare professionals is what lay ahead. Will there be a second wave, and when will it hit?

“The great majority of hiring professionals I’ve spoken with over the past few months feel confident that they will be better prepared for the second wave when it comes,” Poltorak noted.

Indeed, the industry has proven resilient and incredibly agile. Companies across the healthcare spectrum are reevaluating current procedures, learning from the past several months, and changing business continuity plans accordingly.

Sterling has created an array of talent management solutions particularly for the healthcare and life sciences industries. Learn about these solutions at sterlingcheck.com/healthcare.

This publication is for informational purposes only and nothing contained in it should be construed as legal advice. We expressly disclaim any warranty or responsibility for damages arising out this information. We encourage you to consult with legal counsel regarding your specific needs. We do not undertake any duty to update previously posted materials.