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For Community Hospitals, Limited Financial and Staffing Resources Puts Onus on Pragmatic IT Spending

As pandemics go, COVID-19 has been a nasty beast for hospitals, with multiple ways of inflicting pain beyond overwhelming them with gravely ill, highly infectious patients and flooding them in red ink.

The latest pandemic-fueled malady is a worsening labor shortage. Hospital employment fell by 31,000 jobs during the first nine months of 2021, Altarum found in a recent report, and is down 93,000 jobs from its pre-pandemic peak in February 2020. Three in 10 healthcare workers have either quit their jobs or been laid off as a direct result of COVID, a poll found. Another 31% said they’ve considered quitting their jobs, citing burnout from increased workloads, low pay, and concerns about their own health and well-being.

That has prompted hospitals to float measures including signing bonuses, higher pay and even recruiting nurses from other regions or foreign countries to fill the gap. One study suggests hospitals are now paying an extra $24 billion per year for qualified clinical labor.

All those higher clinical costs mean cuts for other areas like IT, where many hospitals have struggled to attract qualified talent at a time when crippling ransomware attacks are on the rise against hospitals while telehealth and other remote technologies are in high demand. One smart option for community hospitals is to look at a managed service provider model of IT outsourcing.

Hospitals have much to gain by moving to managed IT services — and many underlying needs for technical expertise and updated technologies and systems. By turning to managed IT services, they can realize increased productivity through higher automation and other efficiencies.

Enlisting an MSP to run or augment your hospital IT department can also help improve technical quality, including by using fractional talent. For example, a part-time CIO or CSO can help with budgeting, or by developing governance to present to a board of directors. Hospitals can also reduce their IT costs by outsourcing functions like 24-hour help desk that they struggle to provide on their own, or by replacing retiring staff with fractional, remote talent, such as database administrators or analysts. It’s a good option for poorly performing IT departments at a time when many hospitals are operating older, outdated systems — some without any available security patches, leaving them vulnerable to a devastating ransomware attack. Outsourcing IT can also help you save time and money on hiring and training staff. Rural hospitals in particular struggle to find qualified IT talent — and when that talent leaves, there are real costs for recruiting, loss of productivity during onboarding and training.

I recently spoke with the CIO of a rural hospital who told me he’d just hired two IT specialists after a nine-months search. Neither candidate was an ideal fit, he explained, but he was desperate, so he committed to cover training courses to help expand their skills. Other hospitals have turned to things like onsite daycare or tuition assistance to attract and retain talent.

Technology is integrated with care delivery more than ever, and smartly deploying technology can partly cover for shortages in qualified clinical workers. A 2017 Black Book Market Research study of nearly 1,600 users of healthcare IT outsourcing found that the primary motivators for outsourcing were a return on investment and immediate access to trained staff and needed technology. The most common benefit sought by hospital CIOs was reduced time spent on infrastructure, followed by the ability to focus on the core business of the health system.

That same report also found widespread dissatisfaction among hospital IT leaders with their IT outsourcing partners, with much of it down to managing vendors who have limited experience in healthcare. It underlines the importance of entrusting only experienced healthcare IT vendors with hospital systems and sensitive patient data. Hospitals should start by conducting a needs assessment and setting strict performance benchmarks and expectations from their technology vendors.

Hospitals are already locked in a critical struggle to attract and retain nurses and other clinical providers. They can’t afford to let their technology operations lag.

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