Most clinical providers rank continuity of care as a top priority. And that’s with good reason, given its documented effects on both quality of care and patient safety. Yet continuity is also placed at risk with every instance of turnover among staff — and in some places, those rates remain near record highs. That makes quickly and efficiently backfilling a position an essential component of healthcare staffing.
Yet backfilling can be a good deal more difficult in healthcare than in other industries. Labor shortages, regulatory needs, and new budget constraints are among the many challenges. With that understood, here’s what today’s healthcare employers should know about the importance of promptly backfilling a position in healthcare, along with some tips on how to get the job done.
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What Does Backfilling a Position Mean?
So, what does backfilling a position mean, exactly? Backfilling is the process of replacing one departed worker with another. The idea is to avoid vacancy by doing so as quickly and seamlessly as possible. But since it’s usually an unexpected need — backfilling typically refers to unplanned personnel changes, such as resignations, firings, promotions, illnesses, and so forth — that isn’t always easy to do.
What’s more, quickly and effectively backfilling a position is especially important in healthcare, an industry that depends on continuity. As most leaders know all too well, extended or even brief position vacancies can cause lapses in care, an increase in errors, and even financial distress for organizations. For these reasons, a high rate of successful backfills has long been a key healthcare workforce metric.
In addition, backfilling is rarely perfectly straightforward. Should the replacement perform the same duties as the departing worker? Do they need the same skills? Or does the position call for something different? Answering these questions is essential to promptly backfilling a position with the ideal replacement. And that means knowing how each position fits into the larger workforce continuum.
6 Reasons Why Backfilling a Position Matters in Healthcare Staffing
Implementing a successful process for backfilling begins with understanding what’s at stake. With that in mind, here are the six biggest reasons why employers should work to actively improve this important part of their healthcare staffing strategy.
#1: Ensure Workforce Flexibility
Sudden departures happen for many reasons, including an unexpected illness or accident, and they typically come without warning. Workforces of all sizes must deal with them as a normal course of affairs. Having a plan in place for fast backfills helps ensure the greater flexibility to adapt to sudden personnel changes, as well as larger fluctuations in demand — such as the aftermath of a disaster or new disease outbreak.
#2: Maintain Productivity and Continuity of Care
Continuity of care has long been acknowledged as critical for healthcare employers. It doesn’t just drive outcomes, but also reimbursement, especially as we move further into the value-based care model. In theory, every vacant position on a clinical staff jeopardizes that continuity. They do so by lowering the staffing ratio that’s central to patient safety, and raising the chances of lapses and error.
Being understaffed for any period can also negatively impact other workers. In healthcare settings, nurses and clinical workers often have to work overtime when a position goes vacant. In addition to putting patients and residents at risk with overworked caregivers, it can increase the rate of burnout and turnover, with negative implications for quality of care, morale, culture, and retention.
#3: Keep Morale High and Culture Positive
In addition to driving higher rates of burnout, expecting workers to regularly pick up the slack from a departed colleague can negatively affect a workplace culture. It can lead to a widespread sense of lack of appreciation. Additionally, they may feel apathy when it appears that their colleagues, and perhaps their own roles, are seemingly dispensable. This situation can lower morale and motivation to the point that both quality of care turnover are at risk.
By promoting continuity and a sense of team importance, promptly backfilling positions can also help improve culture. With a more proactive plan in place for backfilling, healthcare workers can more readily take temporary leave. Whether for maternal and paternal care or a much-deserved sabbatical, they can step away when needed without causing negative effects within the workplace.
#4: Improve Cross-Training and Professional Development
One way to take a proactive approach to backfilling is by actively preparing internal candidates for promotion. By moving up junior employees when a position becomes vacant, employers can shift their backfill needs to a lower-tier (and easier-to-staff) role. Or, if they employ a large enough pool of talent — as many healthcare employers do — they might remove the need to seek an outside hire entirely.
Some organizations do this with regular cross-training. This helps junior workers more quickly build essential skills, and raises morale by giving them more changes for promotion. Cross-training sessions also help ensure that new workers are ready to get started with minimal onboarding or additional training. It raises the overall skill level and, potentially, the morale of an employers’ entire clinical staff.
Mentorship programs, which often go hand-in-hand with cross-training programs, are another key way to establish an internal hiring pipeline. So are professional development programs, which help inspire workers to take an active interest in improving their skills and learning new ones, while earning certifications and more fully exploring their career aspirations.
#5: Reduce Key Operational Costs
As mentioned above, paying workers to cover the shifts of absent workers can lead to serious overtime costs. Having a system in place to promptly backfill positions helps minimize these costs and others. For example, it helps curb the expense of using temporary workers while seeking replacements from scratch. The increased use of internal hires also saves time and money normally spent in sourcing new workers.
#6: Avoid Bad Hires
A strategic approach to backfilling vacant positions also helps ensure that employers hire the right candidate at the right time. Rather than the result of a hastily conducted search, strategic backfilling offers understanding into exactly what’s needed, even before the role becomes vacant — and often having a candidate already lined up. And that could help employers avoid making the wrong hire on a compromised timeline.
How to Ensure Consistent, Successful Position Backfilling
Of course, there are good reasons for employers not to backfill certain positions, too. Vacancies can help leaders make necessary adjustments, whether for reasons of budget, care delivery, or other strategic concerns. For instance, a team may need to add new skills, or shift to a different model of collaboration. Resignations open the door to making those changes and bringing on different types of talent.
A fully considered clinical workforce strategy helps employers understand these dynamics long before any given position becomes available. The result isn’t just a faster process for backfilling a position, but also a clearer understanding of what’s needed in every role. Investing in a long-term workforce strategy overhaul also lets employers implement a better process for cross-training and internal promotion.
Of course, even the best internal process has its limitations. That’s why employers seeking to cast the widest possible net when sourcing new hires partner with a third-party provider. A healthcare staffing and recruitment partner with a nationwide footprint can help organizations find and hire new talent more quickly by offering a much wider pool of talent, and a greater understanding of labor dynamics.
A workforce solutions partner can also help develop strategies to combine internal hiring with the use of temp or travel workers. By utilizing these important resources only when they’re truly needed, employers can avoid some of the biggest costs associated with backfilling, while making sure they’re making the best use of their available budget and resources.
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Meet Your Healthcare Workforce Needs with CareerStaff
Here at CareerStaff, we specialize in helping healthcare employers of all types not only perfect their workforce strategy, but put it into practice, too. From nationwide clinical staffing to strategic workforce management, our Joint Commission-Certified solutions are customizable to meet your needs. You can learn more about our services here, or contact us today to get in touch.