IT empowers health care staff during shortages

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For consumers, obvious signs of the shortage include a higher nurse-to-patient ratio for patients in the hospital and the increase in patients being diverted by ambulances from one hospital to another due to overcrowded emergency rooms.

The shortage of workers has also resulted in the postponement or outright cancellation of elective surgeries and the reduction of the number of licensed inpatient beds. Each of these tactics stems from health organizations’ desire to uphold safety and minimize patient risk in health settings while balancing thinly stretched human resources.

Still, that offers little solace to the patient being carried in the back of a diverted ambulance, nor to other consumers who have been or will be affected by limited access to health care.

According to the American Hospital Association, the health care industry is struggling to fill more than 168,000 vacant positions with qualified professionals. Nurses, pharmacists, and radiology and laboratory technologists are all in short supply. Industry studies reveal that 33 percent of nurses under age 30 plan to leave their jobs within a year; the nation will need 50,000 more radiology technologists by the year 2006; and the number of new pharmacy graduates has decreased for the fourth consecutive year. Meanwhile, the patient population, led by aging baby boomers, is on the rise.

Information technology can help health care organizations address the workforce shortage while increasing the quality of care they offer to their communities. Sophisticated information-sharing software applications are available with built-in knowledge and decision support tools that can enable health organizations to accomplish more with fewer resources.

Such applications can put vital information at a clinician’s fingertips and help alleviate the large burden of administration that comprises the majority of a clinician’s workday. Ultimately, the applications can help recruit and retain clinicians; promote health care as an attractive career choice; and facilitate the rapid training of less experienced workers. But, most importantly, they can automate important but routine tasks, enabling clinicians to spend less time on administration and more on caring for patients.

“It’s the complexity that the nurse feels in her workday that often times will drive nurses away from our profession,” said Terrie Sterling, vice president of patient care services for Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center in Baton Rouge, La., a health organization focused on implementing an electronic medical record to help create efficiencies and quality in care delivery.

“I think it’s that extra minute to hold a hand, it’s that not feeling hurried, it’s that value in ‘I went to school to practice nursing. I went to school to help people and to make a difference.’ I think those minutes that we are shaving off of paper, giving back to them, will improve the quality of the nurse’s work life.”

Experts believe that attracting and retaining nurses will be much easier if health care organizations provide nurses tools and an environment that allows them to enjoy their jobs more and find their work more fulfilling. Our Lady of the Lake uses advanced software solutions from Cerner Corporation, a Kansas City, Mo. company specializing in software designed to bring health care delivery into the information age for dramatic process, training and patient care improvements.

“We must do much more to support skilled health care professionals in these trying times, more to help them keep their attention on patients instead of on endless hunts for elusive, unorganized paper charts,” said Jeff Rose, chief medical officer for Cerner. “Information technology is the key to enabling health care workers to achieve more with less, to eliminating inefficiencies in their workflow and empowering them with better information for effective decision-making.”

Cerner’s software solutions focus on redesigning clinical workflow to eliminate redundancies and wasted time; on increasing productivity with instant access to complete patient information online; and on improving patient safety by assisting clinicians with built-in prompts that make care suggestions based on known information about a patient and his or her condition.

Our Lady of the Lake is implementing information technology solutions to streamline various day-to-day tasks, such as prompting nurses to provide a certain type of care based on a patient’s condition and documenting the care a patient receives. The nurses have embraced these critical tools for helping them increase their productivity and focus on their patients.

For example, during a recent planned system downtime, the nurses timed manual care documentation processes compared to completing documentation online. “What we found was that it actually averaged about 11 minutes faster doing it online,” said Nancy Luttrell, director of nursing informatics for Our Lady of the Lake. For a busy nurse responsible for six patients, that means more than an hour saved each day.

Luttrell then described another intangible benefit. “When I was here on that Saturday having the downtime, one of the nurses came up to me and said, ‘Don’t ever do this downtime stuff again.’ I asked why. She said, ‘Well, it’s not just that manually it may take me longer. It’s that I forget things. If I look at the screen, it reminds me of what I need to do.’ That’s one of those benefits that you really can’t measure.”

The University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago is another health facility that is putting technology to use to improve the quality of its working environment.

“Our organization has actually become a more attractive institution to learn medicine because of the availability of clinical information,” said Joy Keeler, associate vice chancellor at the University of Illinois. “Residents in several areas of our medical school have made the decision to come here rather than other medical schools because of the ease with which they can practice and the sophistication of our patient care system. They no longer face time-consuming searches for paper charts. Instead, they have consistent, reliable access to complete, electronic information in the medical center as well as remotely from their homes or offices. The fact that these physicians are not tethered to a paper chart is very appealing to them when choosing a place to do their residency.”

The implementation of its electronic health record system has sparked significant positive change for clinicians working there. For example, physicians spend 30 percent less time each day searching for charts, with all critical patient information instantly available in the online record. Radiologists now spend five fewer hours each week reviewing medical records, an annual recovery of 5,000 hours now refocused on direct patient care. And registered charge nurses report spending 2.75 fewer hours administering medications each shift. With that process now automated, more than a million dollars worth of nurses’ time has been freed up for patient care annually.

“The electronic medical record, for me personally, is a very powerful inducement to stay here at the University of Illinois, simply because it facilitates my work so much,” said Daniel Hier, head of the neurology department at the University of Illinois Medical Center. “It’s hard for me to imagine going back to a paper record.”

Following in the footsteps of the technology-enabled airline, manufacturing and banking industries, the health care industry’s adoption of information technology solutions may be the key to alleviating the potentially damaging workforce shortage that threatens to affect consumers’ access to quality care.

For more information about Cerner Corporation, visit their Web site at

- Courtesy of ARA Content

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