By Christopher Cheney
To help address healthcare workforce shortages in western Kentucky, Owensboro Health has led an effort to open a staff development innovation center in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Many healthcare executives say workforce shortages are their top challenge as the country emerges from the crisis phase of the coronavirus pandemic. Health systems, hospitals, and physician practices nationwide are struggling with workforce shortages in clinical and nonclinical roles.
Mark Marsh, president and CEO of Owensboro Health, says workforce shortages have affected the entire organization. “Throughout the country, workforce shortages are impacting our ability to provide care. It is affecting clinical roles such as nursing, respiratory therapy, and physical therapy, but we are seeing shortages throughout our organization including the support staff, dietary staff, and housekeeping. With COVID, we had a lot of retirements. We are seeing shortages on the inpatient and the outpatient sides.”
Owensboro Health has launched the Commonwealth West Healthcare Workforce Innovation Center (CWHWIC), which was formed in collaboration with nine regional colleges and universities. The Kentucky General Assembly approved $38 million to establish the innovation center and develop a curriculum.
Owensboro Health got involved to spearhead the CWHWIC to meet a critical need, Marsh says. “We knew we were facing workforce hardships, including burnout from COVID. I am on a collaborative with the other nine big health systems in Kentucky, including Norton Healthcare. We were all facing workforce hardships. With traveling nurses, we have just been swapping nurses. So, we have been trying to put a plug in the problem, but even with the travelers, it has not been enough.”
Working in collaboration with the colleges and universities is a critical component of the CWHWIC, he says. “We are blessed—we have nine colleges and universities in the western part of the state. When I first got here—I have been at Owensboro Health for about 16 months—I pulled those nine colleges and universities together and said, ‘Here is what we are confronting.’ I said, ‘How can we put our collective resources together to address workforce shortages?’ I came to the conclusion that we are going to be a lot better off trying to solve for this problem ourselves rather than rely on state or national resources. CWHWIC is an attempt to grow our own staff.”
Owensboro Health worked with state legislators to establish the CWHWIC, Marsh says. “That was the exciting part. … Lawmakers love collaborative efforts. They saw nine public and private institutions come together with a solution. Lawmakers had been hearing about workforce shortages from the health systems in Kentucky. It made it easy for me to work with some of our local politicians. One was state Rep. Suzanne Miles. We had the chance to put our story together, and we went to the capital to meet with politicians. What was initially designed just to present the concept and how the innovation center would help moved so quickly that it went up for a vote in the appropriations committee.”
Owensboro Health has invested heavily in the CWHWIC, says Bart Darrell, vice president of the innovation center. “Owensboro Health did not just go to the legislature and make a request for money. It has made a significant investment in everything from personnel to auxiliary services and the human resources piece. Owensboro Health is all in. This would not have moved forward if the state legislature and the governor did not believe that Owensboro Health was going all in. There is a significant $10 million–$12 million investment from Owensboro Health, which makes a great point to everybody that this is not just an idea. This has been researched and we have the right people involved.”
How the CWHWIC will work
Owensboro Health has made a facility available to house the innovation center, Marsh says. “We have a facility that serves as our business office in the heart of Owensboro. It is about 48,000 square feet. We needed space to create the simulation labs and the innovation center. We were able to have some people work from home, and we have some other facilities throughout the area where we can relocate some of our personnel. It gave us the freedom to go ahead and convert and retrofit our business office into this new innovation center. That was a great speed to market for us and we are investing those resources.”
The contribution of space for the innovation center was crucial for the initiative, Darrell says. “If Owensboro Health was not willing to contribute this building, you could not build a similar facility with the money that is coming from the legislature. Without that facility, this initiative would not be happening. It is going to be a state-of-the-art facility. It will have the cutting edge in technology as it relates to simulation.”
Simulation labs are the key component of the CWHWIC, he says. “Anything that we do here is going to be done with excellence. So, we are making sure that we are being smart on how we start down the road. We anticipate offering simulation lab training in nursing, respiratory therapy, radiology, and lab techs initially.”
The simulation labs will provide essential training at the innovation center, Marsh says. “We are putting together 13 simulation labs—those simulation labs are going to provide real-life scenarios where participants can see what an operating room nurse is or an ER nurse is. We are trying to role-play and provide real-life scenarios, so when participants get into the workplace setting, it will reduce the orientation and allow them an easier transition. It will give innovation center participants a better understanding of what their jobs entail.”
Collaboration with the colleges and universities is also crucial, Darrell says. “Another piece is when we collaborate with the colleges and universities. Each one of them has their own niche or specialty. We know where we are going for the first three to five years, but we are also ready for whatever the healthcare environment presents to us and whatever technological advances arise. We believe we will be well-positioned to take advantage of change.”
Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care editor at HealthLeaders.