The Healthcare Industry’s Top HR Challenges in a COVID-19 World

Marketing Director

COVID-19 continues to spread across the U.S. and it’s having a huge impact on the healthcare industry. Optimizing patient outcomes and saving lives on the frontlines of COVID-care rely on skilled and resilient staff with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Healthcare HR teams and leaders face enormous challenges, from evolving staffing needs within the organization to meeting the changing needs of the larger community they serve. And the pace of change during this crisis has been dizzying.

“There’s a need for a continuous state of readiness,” says Pamela Ries, Chief Human Resources Officer at Spectrum Health. “Healthcare HR teams need to change and accelerate organizational priorities.” For many HR teams, these priorities are focused on supporting patient care, ensuring business continuity and serving local communities. 

Here are three of the unique challenges the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted for healthcare HR moving forward.

Meeting COVID-19 Patients Care Needs Through Clinical Reskilling

COVID-19 has presented challenges for the way healthcare HR teams have traditionally trained and deployed clinical staff. “It’s highlighted the need for cross-functional training and more focus on skills rather than on roles,” Ries says. For example, you may have to redeploy nurses who don’t typically work in critical care to work the frontlines of COVID-19. Piloting a small reskilling program with a small cohort and soliciting feedback can help organizations scale up their reskilling program.

This requires competency and skills training, but you also need to account for the lack of confidence that clinical staff who have been redeployed to fight the virus may be feeling. Ries and her team helped this by making redeployment to COVID-care voluntary so that clinical staff who want to be skilled-up receive the opportunity. “They feel positive about it instead of being forced into it,” she says. To boost both competence and confidence, reskilling programs should be supplemented by tactical experience in the COVID-care units. 

Supporting Business Continuity Through Reallocating Human Capital

Most healthcare systems have seen a significant decrease in the demand for ambulatory care. Elective surgeries have been largely postponed, and regular check-ups have been moved to virtual visits to prioritize patient safety. “Business continuity is a concern, especially with social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home advisories,” says Zaranique Watson Pope, Chief Human Resources Officer at Dorchester House, a non-profit health center. This could affect the number of staff you need or can afford to maintain.

Health systems that add telehealth services have to decide which positions can be carried out remotely, and HR has to develop telework policies, such as time-tracking or communication procedures. With more employees working remotely, staff within the building may need to be reallocated. “It showed us we could do more with less staff and prompted us to rethink our models,” Pope says. For example, everyone from senior leadership to clinical staff took turns staffing the screening table at the facility entrance, she says. Offering safe, in-house childcare or reallocating staff to reschedule ambulatory appointments can offer continued work for employees, Ries suggests. 

Overcoming Racial Barriers Through Diverse Staffing

COVID-19 has exposed severe racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare. Patients of color often have their health concerns taken less seriously than white patients. “They feel like they don’t see providers that look like them or speak their language,” Pope says. “They feel that some of their conditions may have been overlooked or dismissed because of their race.” 

For the best results, your workforce should mirror your patient demographic, especially on the frontlines of COVID care. As you reallocate staff, ensure that you have diverse healthcare workers caring for and interacting with COVID-19 patients. “The emphasis has always been on patients, but COVID has now shifted that emphasis to the workforce,” Pope says.

Healthcare HR plays a vital role in COVID-19 care. By finding ways to address the challenges posed by increased critical care needs and disparities in community care, HR teams and leaders can help ensure delivery of high-quality patient care and ensure the best possible outcomes for their community, even during this difficult time.