With a shortage of healthcare workers, how can we utilise technology to improve operational efficiency and enhance patient care while prioritising employee safety and well-being?
by Johnny Ong
The World Health Organization (WHO) has projected a significant shortfall of 10 million health workers by 2030,1 intensifying the global competition for healthcare professionals. This talent shortage poses a critical challenge for healthcare systems worldwide, including Singapore, where jobs are being redesigned and work stints are being created for undergraduates,2 in an attempt to meet the sector’s talent needs.
Among some key issues that the current healthcare infrastructure struggles with, like inadequate capacity, suboptimal coordination among various care providers, and limited data sharing, labour augmentation is a priority. According to Rikki Jennings, Chief Nursing Informatics Officer at Zebra Technologies, this is because labour shortages are a rate limiter to growth, and the more sweeping changes needed in healthcare all have a dotted line back to “operational capacity” and “worker capability.”
Before improving care access and quality, healthcare organisations need to first ensure that there are enough people to staff new buildings or deliver new, expanded services. Operationally, hospitals are also unable to reduce costs when a premium is paid to recruit and retain labour to staff existing buildings and sustain current services. Plus, long lines for everything from routine checkups and medication refills to lab testing and emergency interventions are overwhelming staff. According to Zebra’s Global Healthcare Vision Study, approximately two-thirds of executives surveyed acknowledge physicians and caregivers are overextended, and over half report their administrative staff is equally overburdened and unable to complete their work during their shift.
With employee safety and well-being as the top priority, hospital executives are turning to technology to help combat fatigue, reduce errors caused by manual processes and workarounds, and refocus clinicians’ time on patients.
Unburdening the Delivery of Care with Increased Clinical Capacity
Hospitals want to serve more patients, offer more services, reduce costs, and provide equal and expanded access to quality care. While some healthcare organisations are responding to the labour crisis with short-term measures such as hiring and training aggressively, these methods may prove unsustainable in the long run. A fundamental culture change is necessary for burned-out healthcare professionals to stay or return and for students to feel compelled to pursue a healthcare career.
On the other hand, forward-thinking decision-makers recognise that technology is essential to improving operational efficiencies, reducing clinician burnout, and developing an enhanced standard of care in the long term. Many are making the move to unified systems for greater visibility—quickly. The faster they can digitally mature healthcare information, communication, and workflow systems, the sooner they will see efficiency gains, even with the same workforce. In fact, 9 in 10 hospital leaders surveyed in the same Zebra study agreed the quality of patient care would improve if nurses, clinicians, and ancillary, non-clinical healthcare workers had access to collaboration tools and healthcare applications.
That may come in the form of clinical mobility solutions that allow for instant communication across care teams and access to patient records, or real-time location systems (RTLS) and intelligent software solutions that provide actionable insights and prescriptive guidance. Real-time intelligence can help to heighten the quality of patient care and enhance outcomes. In improving operational efficiency, real-time information about the status and location of assets, equipment, and supplies can help reduce costs and save precious time for hospital staff.
The approach to mobility is now changing. Nearly half (49%) of the surveyed healthcare executives now provide employees with hospital-owned devices, as more clinicians require durable and rugged devices and hospitals require more remote device management capabilities. Those who have already adopted clinical mobility solutions are seeing the positive impact on the quality and cost of patient care, with 8 in 10 citing an increase in medical workflow accuracy and precision as well as a reduction in preventable medical errors, among other benefits.
Executives also indicate that artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and advanced Internet of Things (IoT) platforms will become more prevalent as they aim to automate data capture, information flows, and even decision-making.
Beyond the Hospital
While we are entering a new era of healthcare technology, we are also experiencing a new age of heightened patient expectations. 83% of clinicians and 88% of decision-makers surveyed in the same Zebra study agree that patients expect increased visibility into their treatment plans and more control over their care. As such, some healthcare leaders are looking outside their four walls for ways to deliver the quality care people need and expect. Telemedicine is one example; while telemedicine usage soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, research has shown that digital healthcare adoption in Asia remains high even post-pandemic.3 Additionally, Singapore is piloting virtual wards to enable more patients with a wider range of conditions to receive hospital-type care in the comfort of their homes.4
As telehealth becomes more sophisticated with the advancement of technology, this will help to improve the quality of patient care while relieving the workloads of healthcare professionals. For patients, in addition to the convenience of receiving hospital-grade care within proximity of their own homes, providing equitable access to care becomes less of an issue when in-person or virtual clinics can be hosted at local recreation centres, especially in rural areas where it may not make sense to open full-scale medical centres.
In Malaysia, for example, there are initiatives to launch mobile clinics in remote areas of the country, bringing healthcare services directly to people and thereby improving access to care.5
However, the skills needed to provide these services remain indispensable. There are certain technological capabilities required to ensure access to patient information in digital health devices and electronic medical records (EMR), which is key to the continuity and delivery of quality care when there is no physician consistency. While hybrid care models can alleviate the burden on healthcare workers to a certain extent, there will always be a need to augment the healthcare workforce with technology.
Technology to Evolve Care Models
A time of unprecedented challenges has inspired a new age of collaboration and creativity across hospitals, enabled by the power of technology. More data-led intelligence and streamlined workflows enable clinical and administrative support staff to deliver predictive rather than reactive care while increasing agility for the hospital to respond to unexpected future events.
Healthcare leaders will need to evolve care models to meet both patients and providers where they are and to invest in technology to facilitate care within those models. The hope is that this will right-size the workforce—or at least increase care capacity in parallel with demand—leading to improved patient outcomes and experiences.
To learn more about the technology strategies and solutions that can help hospitals become more intelligent, automated, agile, and resilient, click here. [APBN]
This article was first published in the September & December 2023 print version of Asia-Pacific Biotech News.
About the Author
Johnny Ong, APAC Healthcare Practice Lead, Zebra Technologies Asia Pacific
Johnny Ong is currently the APAC Practice Lead where he is responsible for developing the regional healthcare strategy and support ecosystem to increase the adoption of Zebra healthcare solutions in Asia Pacific. He is the subject matter expert and voice of healthcare customers in the region and serves to foster closer customer and partner engagement with Zebra.