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5 ways to use AI and automation to optimize hospital staffing

My inpatient flow teams and I have worked with hundreds of health systems and hospitals to improve their inpatient staffing and scheduling strategies. Many of these, as they tried to navigate understaffing challenges, began by using conventional processes and ineffective staffing technology. They had approached staffing the same way for many years, and were constantly finding themselves in a reactive mode.

There is a better way. As our health system customers continue to explore the potential of powerful new AI-driven hospital staffing methodologies, they recognize how predictive staffing can have a positive impact on financial metrics, patient care, and staff engagement. By leveraging hospital staffing automation and AI technology to streamline workflows and using analytics to make better staffing decisions, those health systems have moved from being reactive to proactive.

Staffing leaders from health systems across the country have shared how they’re using new staffing methodologies and technology to apply the lessons they’ve learned to mitigate ongoing hospital understaffing issues. Other health systems can learn from their successes.

Here are five ways industry leaders are leveraging hospital staffing AI technology to overcome understaffing issues.

1. Using an accurate census forecast to make staffing adjustments up to seven days in advance

Without a census forecast, staffing coordinators and unit leaders are making their best guesses on staff allocation based on historical averages. Balancing staff on the right unit each day becomes a chaotic last-minute scramble, which adversely impacts patient care and staff satisfaction.

During a time when understaffing is especially concerning for hospitals across the country, health systems are turning to AI and predictive analytics, which use a hospital’s own data along with external sources to accurately predict patient census up to seven days in advance. Data is aggregated across applicable clinical, operational, and workforce management systems and presented to both nursing leaders and staffing coordinators in a way that’s actionable. As a result, staffing coordinators and unit managers can align staffing with patient care needs.

“We evaluated our conventional staffing approaches and decided we needed to turn to a more forward-thinking approach to address understaffing. Utilizing a census forecast allows us to be more proactive with our staffing and really align resources while accounting for admits, discharges, and transfers. We’ve really leaned into the data and let the forecasted census be our guide. At any given time, we can focus the resources where they are needed and ensure that the bedside staff can meet the care demands of each individual unit. We don’t get into that crisis mode because we can see what’s coming and can align resources quickly.”

Director of Patient Flow, large Midwest health system
2. Providing enterprise-wide visibility to help find and deploy clinical and non-clinical support staff effectively

When unit leaders and staffing coordinators have a complete picture of enterprise-wide staffing needs, they can make informed decisions that benefit the entire health system. That fosters a culture of collaboration as the team learns to trust the data and recognize they’ll be able to find staffing resources when they need them the most. Staffing leaders can then break down staffing silos and take an enterprise approach to balance nursing resources.

“On any given day, some units are staffed better than others; some of them are overstaffed, some are understaffed. We use this system to balance that by taking staff from an overstaffed unit, moving one or two nurses over to a unit that’s down by maybe two or three. We’re trying to balance the board as evenly as we can.

Senior Staffing Coordinator, large Florida health system

During times of understaffing, many health systems have also used both clinical and non-clinical resources to help lighten the load on acute care nurses. When nursing leaders and staffing coordinators have full visibility to the roster of all available resources, such as pharmacists, orientees, support staff, and nurses from other units or facilities, they can incorporate them into their daily staffing plan and automatically notify them of where, when, and for how long they are being deployed. At one major health system in Texas, the staffing team is working with clinical educators to implement training programs that will add support resources at the bedside.

“We are very fortunate because we don’t just have hospitals within our health system; we also have a large medical group practice. We’ve partnered with our clinical educators to conduct some classes for our medical assistants and LPNs who work in the medical group offices and would like to pick up extra hours on the evenings and weekends to help support our inpatient hospital staffing.”

Senior Functional Systems Administrator, large Texas health system

3. Leverage premium labor more strategically

Leaning on agency staff or premium labor for short periods of time can be very effective mitigation tactics for understaffing, but can also quickly become expensive. With predictive hospital staffing technology in place, nursing leaders and staffing coordinators can optimize existing staff before turning to premium labor to fill staffing gaps.

Predictive analytics also enable health systems to use a tiered approach to offering incentive pay by providing valuable insights about when it’s necessary to offer higher levels of incentive pay to staff critical shifts.

A forecasted patient census on each unit can determine thresholds that trigger different levels of incentive pay to alleviate understaffing.

“Our predictive staffing system provides insight for the upcoming week that shows to what percent each shift is currently staffed based on the current schedule and the predicted census. We use this information and the associated predictions as thresholds for the amount of incentive that can be offered to shift staff around. We may be able to get by at 90% staffed, but at 70%, we’re really struggling. That’s when we need to use higher incentive pay to fill those critical open shifts.”

Market Director of Nursing, large Midwest health system
4. Create and use alternate staffing plans to mitigate short-staffing

When faced with understaffing challenges, health systems can benefit from having the flexibility to deploy different staffing strategies based on the severity of the understaffing and which clinical and non-clinical support staff are available to help stretch the capacity of the acute care nurses.

By developing multiple staffing plans that address different scenarios, health systems can quickly adapt to current and projected situations when understaffing is an acute issue.

“We use…alternate staffing grids to help us deal with [possible understaffing during] patient surges. Based on defined trigger points, we can make staffing adjustments that help us stretch our nurses’ capacity safely. If we have to increase the number of patients assigned to the nurses in a unit, we know how many additional support staff we need based on each of the trigger points we’ve established. This enables us to take action quickly to make sure our nurses are supported. We now have that flexibility in our acute, progressive, and critical care units.”

Director of Nursing Operations, large Midwest Health System 
5. Streamline workflows to give nurse managers and the staffing office more time to be strategic.

Hospital staffing automation technology can eliminate time-consuming manual workflows. With less time spent on reactive chaos management, nursing leaders have more time to spend with their patients and staff. The staffing coordinators can also be more strategic and proactive, addressing understaffing days in advance and focusing on operational improvements. This gives predictive staffing technology leaders and staffing coordinators the invaluable gift of time.

“We implemented the iQueue for Patient Flow workforce management system in our centralized staffing office. The biggest return on investment from this innovative program is the amount of time that has been given back to the leaders and the staffing office. They were spending so much time chasing numbers and making phone calls. We were pulling charge nurses from the bedside just to verify that the staff we saw in our scheduler system was really what they had on the floor. Now we have much more efficient communication and a streamlined daily process that removed a lot of the physical and phone rounding. We can ensure we have the appropriate patient care coverage without spending the immense amount of time that we used to. I can’t speak enough about the time that was returned to our nursing leaders, our bedside staff, and our staffing coordinators.

Director of Patient Flow, large Midwest health system
Hospital staffing AI technology as a catalyst for change

Hospital understaffing is a widespread challenge that is projected to get worse. Many health systems are still struggling to implement effective processes and technology to overcome this issue, and are dealing with short-staffing reactively. Now is the time for health systems to consider the benefits of a staffing solution that provides teams with the time and insight to determine the best strategy for each situation proactively. Whether a health system is replacing manual processes with hospital automation or working to implement staffing practices that contribute to reaching corporate goals, AI and predictive staffing technology can be the catalyst for change. By addressing understaffing strategically and proactively, the healthcare organization can improve financial performance and patient care delivery, while also creating an efficient work environment that boosts staff satisfaction.

Learn more about the hospital staffing solutions included in the AI-powered iQueue for Inpatient Flow here, and hospitals’ success in deploying it here.

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