Top challenges of 2022, No. 1: Hiring and retaining staff

Medical Economics Journal, Medical Economics January 2022, Volume 99, Issue 1

Editor's Note: The past year has been one of the most challenging on record for U.S. physicians. After the lockdowns and telehealth surge of 2020, the year 2021 has been strange. Although things went back to “normal” in that most practices resumed seeing patients in person, the COVID-19 pandemic and its challenges remain. As we do each year, Medical Economics® surveyed our audience to find out what the big challenges were. By far, the top answer was “administrative burdens” including staffing, prior authorizations and electronic health records (EHRs). We decided to take a closer look at what these burdens entail, to help physicians get ready for whatever challenges 2022 will bring. Here's number one.

A medical practice relies on more than the physicians who see patients, with nonclinical administrative staff being vital to overall success. Between those at the front desk, medical records staff, human resources, billing and other back-of-house employees, it takes a village to run smoothly.

Hiring and retaining staff can often be difficult. The recent fears of COVID-19 caused many to stay far away from the health care field, although even before the pandemic the industry was experiencing a shortage of qualified applicants. Issues such as no room for advancement, generational differences, greater salaries in other industries and interest in working virtually have all contributed to employees not being interested in the field. Plus, the “Great Resignation” of 2021 — the trend of people quitting their jobs — has hit most industries as many reexamine their work/life balance.

“This is a big problem for everyone,” says Halee Fischer-Wright, M.D., M.M.M., FAAP, FACMPE, president and CEO of Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), a medical practice advocacy organization. “Health care is as much impacted as every industry is across the globe at this time.”

A drop in patient volume at the onset of the pandemic led to some medical practice staff being furloughed, and many decided not to come back when things picked up. “One of the more interesting statistics is that one-third of nonclinical staff not coming back are not vaccinated,” Fischer-Wright says. “The MGMA has heard that 88% of medical practices (have) had difficulties recruiting front-of-office staff.”

Practical Solutions

The most obvious way to entice people to take jobs is by offering higher salaries and better benefits, but a practice can utilize extras that can raise interest in working there. Examples include allowing flexible hours, treating employees to lunch twice a week or paying for transportation costs. These perks could make the practice appealing to someone looking for work.

“We recommend being aggressive in recruiting strategies and not waiting until you need staff, so you can start to develop the relationships that help to bring new people in that can contribute immediately when needed,” Fischer-Wright says. “Practices also need to optimize their practice to make employees happy.”

When it comes to retaining staff, Fischer-Wright believes the key is to alleviate boredom, which often comes down to repetitive tasking. “We recommend that physicians take a look at practice operations and weed out what is necessary versus what is habit,” she says.

A good solution is cross-training staff, so different people can take turns doing tasks with less chance of burnout. It is also a good idea to increase communication among the staff, so you can learn of concerns early.

“What we see in workers today is that they want this delightful combination that’s almost impossible to achieve — both flexibility and certainty,” Fischer-Wright says. “What we find in medical practices is often they work by need-to-know, so we’re encouraging a much more holistic communication strategy even within the smaller practices so people understand what’s going on.”

Tips for Hiring and Retaining Staff

Although in September a record number of people resigned from positions in the United States, many experts are optimistic that 2022 will be different. Here are some tips on hiring new staff.

1. Increase compensation and incentives: Money talks, but so do benefits and perks. Offer sweeteners that workers will not find anywhere else.

2. Add flexibility: The days of the 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. workplace are quickly fading. Although it is unreasonable for a practice to allow employees to work whenever they want, be open to having them work at different times on certain days so they can attend to family and other life issues.

3. Go digital: When looking for new employees, utilize job sites like Monster.com on both a local and regional level. Use your internal social media channels for networking and finding worker talent.

4. Have open dialogue: For current staff, ask employees what they want and what issues they are having. Solve problems before they get too big and fix concerns that are reasonable. Employees will appreciate that you listened.

5. Go beyond health care: Practices often prefer those with experience in health care, but many qualified people have never worked in a practice. Be open to bringing in bright people from outside the health care arena.