Tomah Health human resources director Brenda Reinert acknowledges that COVID-19 challenged the hospital’s health care workforce over the last year. But the head of hiring at the hospital said some creativity and a devoted staff helped make the year a bit more manageable.
“As far as staffing went, it was being able to keep our staff adequately employed in different areas, so we deployed them into areas of high need. That was one of the challenges we saw early in the pandemic,” said Reinert.
As the pandemic continued, Reinert said challenges shifted to “maintaining adequate staffing levels due to (COVID) exposures and illnesses.”
Reinert was responding to the recently released Wisconsin Hospital Association’s 2020 Health Care Workforce Report that recognized Wisconsin’s health care professionals for resiliency and creativity during the pandemic.
“From a human resources point of view, the pandemic really stretched our creative ability to continue to recruit and onboard individuals,” she said.
WHA’s 17th annual industry workforce report also detailed the physical, mental and emotional toll that the prolonged stress of the pandemic took on Wisconsin’s health care workforce.
“This year’s report shows the continued impact of an aging population on the state’s health care workforce. This, combined with the overwhelming effects of a global pandemic, creates an urgency for solutions to maintain the resilient workforce needed to sustain Wisconsin’s high-quality health care,” said WHA president and CEO Eric Borgerding. “Wisconsin’s health care quality isn’t just happenstance. It requires a dedicated and skilled workforce, smart use of technology and regulatory and licensing reforms that help us make the best and safest use of both.”
While the full effect of COVID-19 on the health care workforce in Wisconsin cannot yet be fully assessed, the WHA report highlighted historic trends as well as pandemic-fueled adaptations driving change in health care planning and delivery, including new technologies and workforce innovations that increase the capacity of the state’s current health care workers.
“Wisconsin’s health care workforce must grow, but with a shrinking supply of workers, it cannot grow fast enough to keep up with rapidly increasing demand,” said Ann Zenk, WHA senior vice-president of Workforce and Clinical Practice. “COVID-19 magnified the need for Wisconsin to carefully target growth to the professions most in demand, and to use those professionals to the full extent of their education, training and experience. We must also provide the health care workforce with technology tailored to clinical need, not weighed down by regulatory requirements.”
Locally, Reinert said Tomah Health said a few positions, like medical lab technicians, are difficult to staff since “some schools have discontinued some of the programs that they had in place.”
Reinert said the hospital’s “relatively young staff” contradicted the state’s report pointing to a demographic trend that has increased the risk of a disproportionate number of retirements among health care workers relative to new professionals entering the field, labeled the “Silver Tsunami.”
“We had a handful of individuals that we knew were facing retirement, and I think the COVID pandemic made them reassess what was important to them from an employment and personal standpoint and they decided that it was time for them to retire," Reinert said.
Reinert said the hospital’s COVID Community Vaccine Clinic is one example of a positive workforce issue over the past year.
“Our employees are really flexible and willing to go wherever the need is — which is huge. That really helps with teamwork and helps us to get the job done. That’s the staff we have here at Tomah Health," she said.
She said according to a recent WHA WebEx, the future of health care careers could be even more challenging.
“Creativity is important since when faced with life’s problems and challenges, you need to think outside the box for solutions. I think that’s what health care needs to look at moving forward,” Reinert said.
There were 82 new hires at Tomah Health in 2020 compared to 75 in 2019. The 2020 figure is down slightly from 2018 when 92 new hires were recorded. The hospital currently employs just over 400 staff.
“Tomah Health offers a lot of opportunities for individuals,” said Reinert. “We’re a great place to work, we offer quality benefits, there’s a family feel to the environment and it makes us an employer of choice.”
Reinert said the hospital’s human resources department has devoted resources over the years to address employment.
“We set ourselves apart because we continue to promote from within and offer a really strong educational assistance program,” Reinert said. “We’re not just a place to come and get a paycheck; there are a lot of other benefits that come with employment at Tomah Health.”
Included in WHA’s 2020 Health Care Workforce report was a detailed analysis of the pipeline of workers in a broad range of health care sub-specialties. Entry-level positions like nursing assistants, practical nurses and technicians registered some of the highest vacancy rates. Advanced practice clinicians also saw high vacancy levels. COVID-19, the report notes, magnified the impact of these shortages.
The full Wisconsin 2020 Health Care Workforce Report is available online at https://www.wha.org/MediaRoom/DataandPublications/WHAReports/Workforce/2020.