What the Great Resignation Means for healthcare IT

The Great Resignation has rocked healthcare more than most sectors of the economy.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 20% of healthcare workers have left their jobs since February 2020. Of those who remain, almost one-third report having considered leaving. Rick Pollack, CEO of the American Hospital Association, cited recent analyses showing there will be a shortage of up to 3.2 million healthcare workers by 2026.

Most of the losses have been among clinicians and other front-line workers; the staffers who’ve borne the brunt of caring for COVID-19 patients and struggled with scarce resources as well as overburdened systems facing high patient volumes.

While healthcare IT workers are not subject to the same stresses and burnout as hands-on providers, they face new challenges as their IT departments struggle with the backlog of COVID-delayed projects. They also have more career opportunities than ever before, as demand for their skills has never been higher.

The empowered worker

The pandemic is reshaping the workforce in ways both evident and still to be determined. Workers are retiring early, going part-time, changing careers, leaving offices for remote or hybrid work, reevaluating what they expect from a job, and even questioning the value of work itself

Because of their specialized skills and industry demand, IT workers have always had a certain degree of employment flexibility and autonomy. With many health systems learning the lesson during the pandemic that remote workers can be just as effective, healthcare IT staff now have hundreds of new job opportunities available to them at organizations across the country, often using the same electronic medical record systems.

Organizations in larger markets such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco no longer have to recruit just in their local, higher-dollar markets. Instead, they can offer highly competitive wages in smaller markets in the South and Midwest, granting tech workers salary and benefits improvements while still saving money for the broader enterprise.

The changed circumstances brought on by the pandemic and subsequent Great Resignation also come at a time of rising demand for healthcare IT workers. Many provider organizations are coping with project backlogs from work delayed due to COVID as well as new initiatives critical to ongoing success, such as population health, automation, and virtual care initiatives. As medicine becomes more digitized and reimbursement is tied to outcomes, the need for healthcare IT work to be completed efficiently and effectively is increasingly vital.

Most CIOs and other healthcare IT leaders are already seeing this impact and putting plans in place now before a challenge becomes a calamity. Rather than trying to have IT staff that can both lead strategic, innovative efforts as well as effectively maintain, upgrade, and optimize existing technologies, many health systems are embarking on a path of expertise and leveraging external partners, such as consulting firms, to cover specific talent solutions.

A crowded labor pool

For the longest time, health systems have recruited IT workers with the expectation that they will be close in proximity to their facility or campus. While it was considered a beneficial practice to have workers on-site, the pandemic has drastically altered that dynamic. Now, employees can work from home and contribute to organizations far and wide.

The result of this is an increasingly crowded labor pool that benefits some health systems and hampers others. All hospitals and health systems are now on the same level; a community hospital in Arkansas is competing for the same IT labor as an integrated health system in Seattle. What will help these organizations differentiate their offerings to these workers is how they position their benefits to prospects, including salary and remote work options.

The pandemic-fueled work-from-home lifestyle has disrupted the traditional concept of on-site work in several ways. While hospitals will always need some IT staff on hand, it’s been proven over the past two years that much of IT work can be done remotely. Across the industry, larger health systems are also beginning to recruit IT staff from smaller, rural hospitals, a trend that is likely to accelerate in the future.

While these developments could be considered bad news for some IT departments, the Great Resignation can offer net positives for organizations willing to pivot strategically. Rather than viewing increased employee turnover, broader talent pools, and greater competition for recruiting as a negative, IT leaders should rethink their IT resourcing strategy.

By doing so, they can capitalize on greater labor options, expand their IT capabilities as an enterprise, and emerge in a stronger market position in a post-COVID landscape.

Rethinking your IT strategy

Despite the upheaval and labor force volatility, there are best practices for IT departments to help weather uncertain times. CIOs should examine their departments, from staffing and structure to rethinking priorities and identifying partners. Here are four steps healthcare leaders should take to minimize the disruption:

  1. To keep the staff you have, offer competitive salaries and benefits. Be particularly attuned to staff desires for work-from-home or hybrid arrangements. Remember that workers have more freedom than ever to pursue a preferable work arrangement; if you don’t provide it, they will look for an employer who will.
  2. Focus on letting the staff do the work they enjoy and thrive at; burning out top talent working low-impact issues is a surefire way to create a staffing emergency. Some healthcare IT workers thrive when aligned with a stakeholder to partner and solve a challenge, while others enjoy troubleshooting a technical issue or working with data. Let people do what they enjoy and build a career path for them based on that.
  3. Determine what you want to be great at. It’s not easy to excel at innovation, low-cost maintenance, data analytics/population health, and everything else that healthcare IT departments are tasked with. CIOs are already seeing success selecting an area of focus for their internal staff, such as leaning into informatics to leverage data and technology to drive operational outcomes with stakeholders.
  4. Evaluate and use IT partners, such as consulting and talent solution firms, to establish fixed operating costs and reduce staffing risks. A managed services IT partner can eliminate the need to hire staff for a specific project of a limited duration, which helps control payroll costs. Working with a partner also means IT departments don’t have to spend as much time and money ensuring employees are up to speed on evolving technology or finding new roles for workers whose skills are no longer needed.

Providers can also use outside contractors to reduce pressure on their key staff, manage backlogs, and ensure projects are delivered on time and on budget across the enterprise. While the work is essential, system employees don’t need do it all, and when delivered via a managed services model, the health system only needs to monitor that contracted outcomes are delivered, rather than manage the daily work or ever-changing skill set needs.

Now is the time for system CIOs to decide what they want their departments to concentrate upon and which functions they should continue to perform for the greatest benefit of their organizations. Then they should look for a partner who can be an efficient and effective extension of their IT organization.

Zack Tisch isVice President, Client Solutions, Pivot Point Consulting and has worked with organizations such as Stanford Healthcare, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Cedars-Sinai, UCLA Health, Sutter Health, and more since he began his career in healthcare technology in 2005.