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Recently, the governor of North Dakota made an extraordinary announcement that sent shockwaves through the nursing community: hospitals in that state would allow nurses who had tested positive for Covid-19 but were asymptomatic continue working. Even in a year full of unprecedented news, this was truly shocking. And beyond that, it’s evidence of just how many long-standing issues in the healthcare staffing system have been laid bare by the pandemic. This industry has always been plagued by inefficiencies, but in the last ten months, it’s been pushed to its breaking point, and we’re seeing dire consequences as a result.

This situation has to be a wake-up call for the healthcare industry. Every hospital and health system should be thinking about not only what they can do to avoid the situation like the one facing North Dakota, but also how they can channel this pandemic into meaningful change for their organization’s staffing. The following three steps are a good jumping off point.

Create a flexible labor pool. There was a nursing shortage even before Covid-19 hit, and there will be one when the pandemic is over. Hospitals will never again be able to hire enough full-time or part-time employees to stay staffed through the peaks and troughs of care. They need to stop trying and instead, take a page out of the books of nearly every other service industry by using flexible labor. Whether this is an internal pool or an external one, creating a pool of “gig nurses” that can work on demand will allow hospitals to flex up and down seamlessly. And the good news is that the tools and technology are evolving to make this a reality. Previously, you had to have a contract with a large staffing agency to get access to a flexible labor pool, but new platforms are springing up that allows you to get the right talent to the right spot safely, quickly, efficiently, and cost effectively.

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Cut down on bureaucracy in hiring and onboarding. Despite widespread shortages across the US, there is still a supply of nurses looking for opportunities to work and support systems in their Covid-19 spikes. However, both states and individual facilities are using severely outdated processes to credential and hire these nurses. Twenty hours of online modules (which are essentially voiceover powerpoints), mandatory background and drug tests for nurses who underwent both of these as recently as 13 weeks ago, manager-level references and old school interviewing techniques all slow the ability of these nurses to provide care to organizations quickly. What’s more, none of these processes actually impacts or assesses a nurse’s competency or skill. For any organization that wants to cut down on its onboarding time, I suggest the following: a background check within the last year, a drug screen in the last six months, a verified license in good standing, and all health documentation is complete.  That’s it.  If their resume shows their experience, talk to them about it and hire.

Think about the system impact. Decisions like the one made in North Dakota that are meant to address a short-term problem can have long-lasting and profoundly negative effects. Asking nurses who are Covid-19 positive to continue working not only alienates current staff, and steers contingent labor with lots of options away from your facility or state. Nurses learned from the first wave of the pandemic that no amount of compensation is worth the trauma of a poor system with no support and leadership that doesn’t act with their best interests at heart. Hospitals need to address each of these things if they want to attract the talent to meet their needs and avoid burning out a limited resource.  If you are a healthcare leader, right now is the time to change your thinking and look for new solutions. Nurses are the world’s most trusted profession and the undisputed heroes of 2020. But if we don’t start taking better care of them, we risk losing an entire generation.