COVID-19 has disrupted the practice and delivery of healthcare prompting unprecedented improvements related to the health and safety of workers and patients. While these advances are worth celebrating, there are evolving workforce challenges and barriers to overcome in education, training, recruiting and retaining our healthcare workforce.

In SW Washington, advancements around patient engagement and long-term care have focused on technology platforms offering connectivity between caregivers and patients. Virtual care management, also known as telehealth, while once an anomaly is now mainstream due to COVID-19 and is here to stay, offering both a “bricks and mortar” location and a virtual relationship.

Local healthcare technology business innovations include:

  • Conversa virtual healthcare and communications platform giving healthcare consumers a personalized and timely experience, while helping health organizations monitor, manage and engage with consumers.
  • Curago Health quickly pivoted its focus to help companies with contactless patient registration and well as developing a telehealth platform around practice workflows to enhance connectivity between providers and patients. This goes beyond urgent care issues into long-term care management opportunities.
  • Hippo Virtual Care platform integrates with a variety of health systems and devices, allowing clinicians to communicate in real-time with remote colleagues or for medical education.

With the giant leap forward in healthcare technology and using these other engagement platforms, telehealth real-time virtual appointments are now widely accepted. Prior to COVID-19, telehealth appointments were rare. Trent Green, COO for Legacy Health Systems, stated in a Greater Portland, Inc. “Road to Recovery” webinar, that in December 2019, there were no primary care telehealth visits. Fast forward to June 2020 and more than 50 percent of appointments were conducted through virtual video/real-time and telephone visits.

Cameron Carson, Columbia Wellness Director of Recruiting/Retention states, “The ability to provide telehealth services throughout this pandemic has been a tremendous benefit for our clients as it has removed many barriers to treatment that existed before COVID-19. Typically, our client engagement rate significantly decreases during the summer months, but we have seen a notable increase in client engagement over the past three months when compared to last year by offering telehealth services. Before the pandemic, the population we serve didn’t have the opportunity to receive services via telehealth due to various regulations, but by allowing telehealth services we have been able to safely stay more engaged with our clients throughout this difficult time.”

Through these innovative processes and procedures, healthcare businesses are continuing to reopen and operate at or near full capacity. Significant challenges, however, remain to be addressed:

  • COVID-19 has disproportionately affected healthcare workers who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color as they tend to be front line workers, with lower wages and higher exposure. Mental and emotional support programs and workforce safety training around communicable diseases are limited. The fear and stress around COVID-19 in these types of positions leads to higher than normal turnover rates, increased unemployment, and a strain on healthcare businesses and other workers when positions become harder to fill as job seekers fear possible exposure to COVID-19.
  • Healthcare was once considered a safe and financially stable work environment. Now the fear of exposure to this virus is affecting clinical externships, recruitment and placement for healthcare students and other healthcare workers. Staff trainers and HR teams are at capacity with limited time and resources to devote to new personnel, putting additional strain on internal processes and procedures. Further, there is an accelerated trend related to the shift of care out of hospitals to distributed sites of care due to digital/virtual options. Staffing adjustments, new training programs, processes and regulations will have to be quickly developed to meet this emerging trend.
  • Higher education has pivoted from hands-on clinical experiences to offering simulation learning. While state licensing boards have been involved with ensuring simulations meet requirements, there is still the issue of different requirements for each state. That is a challenge we face here in SW Washington as our labor market is closely tied to NW Oregon. As a workforce, a national requirement ‘norm’ needs to be developed for these simulations to keep the education/talent pipeline open. These conversations and program development around simulation, licensing requirements and national programs are currently evolving. The University of Portland’s Simulated Health Center is developing additional programs to address the immediate need for students to meet the learning requirements and gain exposure to the continuum of care.

Through collaboration and innovation, huge strides have been made to ensure healthcare professionals can connect directly to patients using advancements in technology platforms. As we move forward, the healthcare industry must address the challenges of recruiting, training and retaining staff while at the same time ensuring the health and safety of our healthcare workforce and community.

The workforce system has resources for both businesses and job seekers:

  • Healthcare companies wanting assistance with workforce needs can contact Sean Moore at Workforce Southwest Washington at smoore@workforcesw.org or 360.762.8569.
  • Job seekers interested in learning about healthcare opportunities should contact Karin LaValla at WorkSource at klavalla@esd.wa.gov or 360.735.4957.
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