In mid-2022, capacity management expert LeanTaaS jointly conducted a survey with the Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC) to capture data and insights from cancer center nursing directors and operational leaders from across the country, to better understand current challenges in cancer center operations and how AI-based technology can help.
Nearly 100 cancer center leaders from across the US answered this survey, including those employed by community and academic health centers, as well as private oncology practices. Respondents manage between 10-30 infusion chairs in their center and the majority hold vice president, director, and administrator titles.
Critical findings for infusion center operations
The survey found a significant number of cancer centers face common operational challenges that prevent them from functioning at their optimal capacity. 40% of infusion center leaders surveyed believe they have already run out of space and would need to physically expand to accommodate any further patient volume growth. Further, inadequate tools and strategies are hindering smooth daily operations.
The following are clear areas the surveyed infusion centers need to address in order to successfully unlock capacity.
The top three focus areas for cancer centers today
1. Infusion center resource constraints
Resource constraints that infusion centers face include limited infusion chairs, nurse shortages, and pharmacies that are not able to keep up with drug demand. On top of the 41% of respondents who said they would need to physically build capacity in order to accommodate additional patient growth, another 13% reported not having the resources they needed to add space or infusion chairs to help with volume growth.
COVID-19 safety measures also led to a backlog of patient demand that many centers are still working through. More than half of survey respondents need a major investment in order to meet their current patient demand for appointments.
2. Staffing shortages and burnout
Survey respondents have tried a variety of approaches to address the widespread nursing shortage impacting healthcare organizations nationwide. Most commonly, infusion centers have used travel or temporary nurses, modified shifts, and increased nurse-to-patient ratios to optimize resources.
The method centers use to assign nurses to patients greatly impacts how efficient they can be with their existing nurse resources. The survey further finds that fewer than 20% of respondents are using the “nurse pull” methodology, which is mathematically and operationally the most efficient way to manage nursing capacity at infusion centers.
We also asked respondents what tools they use to address nurse stress and burnout. The most popular responses included offering staff recognition events and increased pay or benefits, closely followed by nurse support programs and team-building exercises. While helpful in the short-term, these tools are not well-suited for promoting long-term nurse retention while maintaining the operational and financial health of the health center.
3. Lack of access to relevant EHR data
Infusion center personnel have access to EHR data to help inform decision-making, but they know that workflows are not built to optimize asset utilization or improve patient access.
It takes constraint-based optimization methods, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and simulation algorithms to solve problems to unlock capacity and provide prescriptive recommendations. This challenge is illustrated in the nearly 50% of respondents who find it somewhat or extremely difficult to access the data they need from their EHR.
Additionally, nearly 50% of infusion centers are tracking their operational performance manually in spreadsheets, which are inefficient, a resource drain, and prone to human error.
Attempting to manually access data and tracking performance metrics in spreadsheets is especially cumbersome, given the complex scheduling patterns in infusion centers. These results show a clear need for an easier and more effective way to draw actionable insights. Supplementing the workflow with AI tools will show staff the specific volumes, assets, resources, and needs of their particular center. This real-time reporting immediately shows users the root causes of historic operational issues and supports optimal schedules and assignments in the present and future.
The challenges ahead: navigating infusion center capacity in the next few years
While the healthcare industry still faces new waves of COVID-19, the pandemic has undeniably exacerbated challenges in cancer center operations. Infusion center leaders will have to cope with:
- Staffing shortages due to burnout, stress, and retirement/aging of the nursing population
- Sicker patients who have delayed cancer screenings or treatment
- Doing more with fewer resources, and therefore operating more efficiently
- Innovating to accommodate patient growth without large capital investments
- Providing easier access to actionable data on health center operational performance
For the complete analysis, and discussion of AI-based solutions to these challenges, download the survey report here.