Harnessing 'quick wins' can be a powerful strategy for critical access hospitals (CAHs) to bolster their operations and ease the financial and staffing strains that they encounter in a persistently challenging healthcare environment.
It can be a daunting task for a CAH to tackle the big problems all at once. That’s why adopting the quick-win method – making minor changes or implementing short-term solutions that have an immediate yet long-term impact – can be beneficial for these rural facilities.
There are more than 1,300 CAHs located across the country, and many of them serve as crucial safety-net providers for rural and other underserved communities, according to data from the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. More than 46 million Americans, or 15 percent of the U.S. population, live in rural areas, as stated in a 2023 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CAHs have a long list of well-documented struggles, including a shortage of workers and supplies, budget cuts brought on by diminishing federal funding, high rates of uncompensated care, and aging infrastructure. In addition, rural Americans typically have more health disparities than their urban counterparts.
"While many hospitals and health systems are facing unprecedented challenges, those faced in rural America are unique,” said American Hospital Association President and CEO Rick Pollack. “We must ensure that hospitals have the support and flexibility they need to continue to be providers of critical services and access points for patients and communities."
There is no one solution to all of the challenges that CAHs face, but the rural facilities can find relief by leveraging these three quick wins.
The shortage of qualified healthcare professionals has long been an issue in rural communities due to challenges with recruitment and retention. Multiple factors contribute to the problem, including hospitals’ lack of competitive salaries, limited resources, higher workloads, and difficulty recruiting replacements. As a result, CAHs have traditionally been short-staffed.
Different tactics are needed to develop strategies to attract nurses and other clinicians to rural facilities. One approach to recruiting nurses and reducing turnover is to move from a traditional scheduling model to self-scheduling. Providing nurses with a self-scheduling tool gives them complete autonomy over their schedule and empowers them to manage their professional work and personal life. When nurses can pick the shifts they want or easily swap shifts with coworkers, they will feel more in control of their time. It also allows them to schedule self-care activities so they can avoid burnout. In a time when hospital leadership must deploy creative methods to retain employees, self-scheduling can be leveraged as a benefit to future and current employees.
Advances in technology have changed how healthcare facilities operate, from the use of artificial intelligence and data analytics to the adoption of mobile apps and telehealth. Implementing any one of these tools requires significant time and investment, so it is recommended to do so with a plan. A good first step in that plan is to form a digital transformation committee that will help identify ways to make technological improvements that will address the hospital’s operational efficiencies, costs, and staffing.
Part of the committee’s responsibility would be to design and monitor the implementation of the organization’s transformation plans and to ensure the organization meets its transformation goals. They would also work to ensure everyone is aligned and understands the organization’s long-term objectives. The quick win for CAHs is getting the actual committee formed. When doing so, it would also be useful to recruit committee members who have previous experience in operational excellence and who are motivated to collaboratively celebrate quick wins.
Look for one opportunity where your organization can deliver an exceptional patient experience. Patients have multiple interactions with the system and your team. You can make a big impact by taking small actions, such as making the process of booking appointments more efficient, ensuring that your desk receptionists are friendly, acknowledging your patients by name, or keeping a patient’s room quiet when needed. Maximize these quick wins by deploying such opportunities and then monitoring patient feedback for future iterations. Avoid waiting to implement significant initiatives on patient experience that can be complicated and costly. Prioritizing the needs of patients at every stage of their medical journey and committing to carrying out the initiatives quickly can result in increased staff engagement, thereby reducing staff turnover.
There are several reasons why CAHs should adopt quick wins as part of their overall business strategy. When the company achieves multiple goals in quick succession, it can boost employee morale and drive momentum among the team. It also signals to the staff that leadership is committed to working hard to achieve the best results for their organization and those they lead.
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