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Understaffing in healthcare doesn't just apply to physicians. There is also a nursing shortage that can quickly lead to a nurse hangover -- or symptoms of fatigue and malaise similar to a hangover from alcohol -- as overworked nurses go without sleep or breaks to try to keep up with their patient loads.
Joshua Ostrega is COO at WorkJam Inc., which provides a digital platform that focuses on improving communication and collaboration between healthcare providers and their employers.
In this Q&A, Ostrega says a nurse hangover is often the result of a healthcare organization being short-staffed or the nursing staff having erratic schedules. Work conditions like these can be detrimental to patient safety and necessitate control over scheduling to provide a better employee and patient experience.
Editor's note: This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity.
What are some of the factors that contribute to a nurse hangover?
Joshua Ostrega: From the healthcare provider standpoint, some are saying that there's a labor shortage. Others talk about managing rising healthcare costs and other challenges, like an uncertain environment around insurance. There are all these different challenges that affect how well-staffed an organization is.
With these different challenges, [healthcare organizations] end up not always having the right mix from a staffing perspective. Then, all of a sudden, if there's a problem, like if someone needs to not come to work one day for whatever personal reason, which is normal in any industry, it has an immediate toll on everybody else.
What happens is, in some industries, it might create a longer line at the register and some other problems. But in healthcare, what happens is patient safety is now a factor because it almost becomes a level that would be considered unsafe staffing. People need to take medication and proper procedures need to take place. If you're understaffed in that type of situation, one of two things happen: The care diminishes and the patient experience is hurt, and it could become dangerous because mistakes are made.
But what also happens is that nurses and physicians and others end up working later because they are so committed to their patients and doing everything they can. As humans, there are limits, and it can take a toll and really put patient safety at risk.
How does WorkJam help healthcare organizations with staffing and scheduling issues?
Ostrega: Say I'm a nurse, and I can see my schedule on my phone, which makes it very easy to know when I'm working. But then I realize I won't be able to come in tonight. I have an overnight shift [and] something happened -- I'm not feeling well or maybe my child is sick and I have to take care of them. So I have to call in. But you can imagine an overnight shift is not an easy one to find a replacement for.
[What the digital platform does] is it allows the person to make that shift available in a pool where others are notified that there's a shift available for them to pick up. It makes the whole employee experience of managing and changing a shift with other co-workers much simpler than current processes, which are often based on some head nurse managing it through telephone calls, text messages, a Facebook group and other kinds of complicated ways of doing it.
In addition to technology, how else can healthcare organizations mitigate nurse hangover?
Ostrega: It's easy to say technology is always the answer. But the reality is that if you can create a better workplace experience, you will boost productivity. By driving up productivity for your healthcare providers -- physicians and nurses -- it will drive improvements to patient care and the success of the healthcare provider. That alone will make life better for the nurses to not be in this position.
The more progressive, forward-thinking employers are going to adopt these technologies to make life better for their workforce, and it's going to help improve patient care and the quality of their institution.
What advice do you have for healthcare organizations?
Ostrega: Probably the biggest tip is [providing] employees with more self-service tools that will allow them to have more flexibility with when and where they're working. That can have a dramatic effect on their engagement. Improving communication in a streamlined way can also lead to more productivity and a positive workplace experience.
The other thing is that there is a direct correlation between creating a positive workplace experience and a higher quality patient experience. The fact that they go hand in hand means that focusing on improving the workplace experience for your staff will drive up the patient experience, which will lead to productivity improvements and better quality overall healthcare. It's all extremely intertwined.