During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth use increased to 38 times its pre-pandemic level. After spiking significantly in April 2020, the volume of remote doctors’ appointments had leveled off at a still notable 17% of all outpatient and office visits by July 2021, as patients became more accustomed to online medicine. Telemedicine has also helped hospitals and medical practices mitigate the burnout that has fueled the staff shortage in healthcare and led to high turnover rates.
But changes to the healthcare space go far beyond the rise of virtual visits. Like many industries, more and more medical providers are embracing remote work for certain positions.
In 2021 TriHealth, a 12,500-employee health system based in Cincinnati, adopted a policy that enables all employees in non-patient-facing roles to telecommute. The company also provided manager training on how to foster successful telecommuting. Now more than 10% of the staff works remotely, and management is considering further expanding access to remote work, according to Chief People Officer David Cook.
“We didn’t just enact a new policy,” Cook tells Staffing.com. “We took the time to research and understand what team members were asking for, what we needed, and how telecommuting could fit within the organization.”
The Far-Reaching Benefits of Remote Work in Healthcare
A surprising result of the pandemic was the realization that remote work is well-suited even to healthcare, and can be utilized to address the healthcare talent shortage. Here are some of the ways remote work improves outcomes for the healthcare industry.
Before the arrival of COVID-19, many hospital workers had already left their jobs because of burnout, which affected 35% to 54% of nurses and physicians. Burnout worsened during the pandemic, prompting the US Surgeon General to issue an Advisory on Building a Thriving Health Workforce. The advisory outlines steps to ease the healthcare crisis that include offering candidates remote interviews.
Nearly 1 in 5 healthcare workers have quit during the pandemic, and the majority of the remainder say that a chronic staff shortage in healthcare makes it harder to effectively serve patients. Skyrocketing employee turnover has also affected morale and created a knowledge gap for those filling vacancies—there is often no one to properly train new hires.
“Throughout the pandemic, people had much more stress in their personal lives than previously,” says Cook, noting that stressors have ranged from layoffs and consolidating households to how children were being educated. TriHealth’s expanded telecommuting policy gave stakeholders more latitude. “We put that into focus to meet team members where they were and help them navigate.”
Telehealth options for a range of wellness and diagnostic appointments have also helped shield a core group of staff members from possible COVID-19 exposure and its attendant stress. What’s more, telehealth technology is helping to lighten the burden for short-staffed clinicians, and also allows veteran nurses to coach or share insights with newer staff members virtually.
Advancing Recruitment with Remote Medical Staff
In addition to reducing burnout, remote work in healthcare opens the door to remote work talent who can fill roles like medical consultants and billing specialists—a boon for facilities in rural areas where resources may be scarce, and the staff shortage in healthcare may be most keenly felt. For companies like Wellstar Health System, Cardinal Health, and TriHealth, it’s also a linchpin to recruitment and retention efforts.
“The ability to work remotely has vastly expanded that talent pool as you can now hire team members from anywhere across the US,” Danyale Ziglor, VP of HR for Shared Services and Post-Acute Services at nonprofit care provider Wellstar Health System, tells Staffing.com. “Candidates now have greater options for where they want to work and who they want to work for. This makes it much more important to effectively tout the benefits and culture of your organization as a way to attract the best and the brightest.”
“We think about retention from day one,” Ola Snow, CHRO of Cardinal Health, tells Staffing.com. As Cardinal continues to adopt a hybrid approach, it’s moving closer to its long-term goals of attracting top talent that will develop their skills and put down roots. “It’s about creating an environment where people can thrive and bring their whole selves to work,” she says.
The tactic has also been effective for TriHealth. Any cost savings realized through telecommuting are reinvested in employee training and retention programs, which has led to improved internal engagement survey results. “In many ways, we’re actually coming out of the pandemic stronger,” says Cook.
Promoting access to remote work talent has also buoyed TriHealth’s employer brand. “We hear feedback from candidates that our brand is stronger than ever,” says Cook. Even in a tight labor market that is exacerbated by the staff shortage in healthcare, the company has been able to fill more positions than the previous year with metrics like close rate and days to fill holding steady.
Advances in technology have helped health systems transition more roles to remote setups. Even some doctors, nurses, and other clinical functions like telepsychiatry and health coaching have gone or stayed remote since the pandemic, says Bruce Korus, founder of Korus Health Innovation. He tells Staffing.com that the technology is allowing functions like IT telehealth coordinators, medication management professionals, and others to follow suit.
While many back-office roles were already a fit for off-site work, new opportunities for remote work in healthcare are emerging: Information technicians, recruiters, pharmacists, medical writers, and development coordinators.
As telehealth continues to expand, TriHealth’s Cook foresees that some clinical care providers could be outfitted with equipment to monitor patients remotely. As these approaches evolve, he says consumer demand will determine whether TriHealth will take big steps toward more remote clinical care.
Wellstar, which has more than 10,000 employees, ramped up its number of remote team members to 1,500 from 300 over the past year. Ziglor says she’s learned important lessons during the process. “Team members can be exponentially more productive when given the chance to determine when, where, and how they work. We’ve also learned technology is the real enabler to remote working success.”
Downsizing Drives Savings
Another key benefit of embracing a workforce of remote professionals is reduced real estate costs. Jamey Edwards, who was CEO of Cloudbreak Health when the pandemic forced it to go remote, tells Staffing.com that the telehealth provider had to adopt new processes in a flash. “We realized that for our business, it was better for us to have people work remotely. Office sizes have shrunk, and we operate more efficiently when remote than in person,” says Edwards, who is now COO of StartUp Health, a healthcare investment firm.
John Hui, co-founder and CEO of Twiage, which provides technology solutions to improve the efficiency and cost of emergency care, says his company has also cut the real estate cord. “Once our office lease expired, we turned to shared space to have meetings,” he tells Staffing.com. To help compensate for the shift, staffers do more business travel to visit customers and hold happy hours to enhance team building.
Securing Remote Setups
Although implementing data privacy protocols can slow momentum toward embracing remote work, the risks of not enforcing them are serious. “A medical record is worth 10 times more than a Social Security number on the black market,” says Edwards. “You need really good tech—including VPN and dual-factor authentication—to ensure security.”
TriHealth’s updated telecommuting policy specifies that anyone handling sensitive medical data must do so from a dedicated private space. No data may be stored on personal devices and all systems must be encrypted.
“For those with more challenging home environments, we have to be more restrictive in what they do from a telecommuting standpoint,” says Cook, emphasizing that they can’t do anything to put patient information in jeopardy. “Our folks are 99.99% in healthcare because of our mission, and they want to do no harm to patients.”
Envisioning the Future
With the global telehealth market projected to grow 36.5% over the next six years, the shift toward remote work will continue to gain traction. To address the talent shortage in healthcare that may reach a level of crisis, the industry must make even bolder moves in defining the future of healthcare. Even if some roles never go completely remote, Wellstar’s Ziglor says increased flexibility will be essential to competing in a tight market. While clinical roles may not be as easily performed remotely, she says, it’s important to explore creative solutions that allow team members more flexibility. “We believe that’s the future of work within healthcare.”