Friday, May 6, 2011

Health IT Could Help Reduce Impact of Staff Shortages

More fragmented and uncoordinated healthcare may be on the horizon thanks to a growing shortage of U.S. healthcare workers. That’s the message from a new poll of healthcare quality experts conducted by ASQ, the world’s largest network of quality resources and experts.  
Poll respondents indicate the biggest quality issues patients will face in light of a staffing shortage are:
  • Spotty care.
  • Longer waits for primary care physician appointments.
  • Medical errors.
The online poll was conducted with 475 U.S. healthcare quality professionals who are part of the ASQ quality community. Respondents say healthcare quality will be most impacted by the following shortages:
  • Primary care physicians – (44 percent of respondents).
  • Nurses and nursing assistants (27 percent of respondents).
  • Laboratory professional shortages were also mentioned as an area of concern.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts that healthcare staffing shortages will increase significantly after 2014. That’s when approximately 32 million more people will be insured, as mandated by the healthcare reform law, and as baby boomers become Medicare-aged. 

“This trend is real and could have a negative impact on a patient’s experience as heavier demands are placed on the system,” said Joe Fortuna, chair of ASQ’s Healthcare Division. “That’s why it is imperative that healthcare organizations focus on enhancing their ability to prevent errors, remove waste and improve the clinical and operational quality of the services they provide.”

Prevention Tips

How can healthcare organizations prevent these shortage-related quality issues? Respondents ranked the following solutions in order of priority:
  • Create fast track units. These units allow patients with less serious needs to be seen, assessed and treated faster and released in a timely manner. This frees emergency room staff to focus on urgent cases and improves a patient’s access to emergency services overall.
  • Install and use healthcare IT systems.
  • Implement checklists in the ER and other hospital departments.
  • Establish more care teams of doctors, nurses, physician assistants and disease educators.
  • Implement a scribe program to improve productivity. Hospital scribes trail doctors from bed to bed, taking detailed notes for a patient’s electronic medical record.
Fortuna believes that healthcare IT systems can be helpful in a number of ways to reduce errors, improve care coordination and enhance access to needed medical information. “Innovations like fast track units and scribe programs are also useful.” He adds, “Process redesign coupled with culture change, however, can have a huge impact on cost and quality while at the same time ensuring the sustainability of the changes once made.”

Impact of Healthcare Technology

Poll respondents identified patient electronic medical records as the IT system that will provide the most value in reducing the impact of staff shortages. Respondents ranked other useful IT methods by priority:
  • Computerized order entry system for medications.
  • Clinical decision support systems. DSS is a computer-based information system that supports an organization’s decision-making activities.
  • Telemedicine or remote monitoring systems.
  • Automated dose dispensing.
  • Disease registries. Registries are collections of secondary data related to patients with a specific diagnosis, condition or procedure.
Cost-cutting Measures 

Respondents said that increased use of quality and process engineers should be the top priority for hospitals to reduce costs in light of shortages. Other methods identified by the ASQ poll include:
  • Implement mandatory process improvement training for healthcare.
  • Create financial incentives to deliver more efficient care.
  • Redesign hospital care spaces to be more efficient.
  • Changes in malpractice laws.
ASQ quality improvement experts work in a diverse range of healthcare organizations from hospitals to public health departments. Quality improvement methods have proven increasingly successful in healthcare organizations. For example, lean emphasizes removal of wasteful processes and focuses on delivering more value to patients.  

ASQ is a global community of people dedicated to quality who share the ideas and tools that make our world work better. With millions of individual and organizational members of the community in 150 countries, ASQ has the reputation and reach to bring together the diverse quality champions who are transforming the world’s corporations, organizations and communities to meet tomorrow’s critical challenges. ASQ is headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis., with national service centers in China, India and Mexico. Learn more about ASQ’s members, mission, technologies and training at

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