What Is Surge Capacity, and Why Does it Matter for Healthcare Facilities?

What Is Surge Capacity, and Why Does it Matter for Healthcare Facilities?

With the holiday season quickly approaching, many leaders of healthcare organizations are turning their attention to surge capacity. But what is surge capacity, exactly, and why is it important? And what steps can leaders take today to make sure they’re ready for the busy times ahead?

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What Is Surge Capacity, and Why Does It Matter?

So, what is surge capacity, and why does it matter? Surge capacity is the ability to handle a sharp rise in utilization. According to the U.S. Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR), it’s how well a facility can “evaluate and care for a markedly increased volume of patients — one that challenges or exceeds normal operating capacity.”

These surges could be relatively normal and predictable, like the ones that tend to come during certain holidays. Or they could be unexpected events, such as a wave of hospitalizations arising from a natural disaster or pandemic. These kind of events can, as the ASPR puts it, result in “mass casualty or mass effect incidents.”

What’s the Difference between Surge Capacity and Surge Capability?

It’s important to avoid confusing surge capacity with surge capability. The former refers to the ability to handle a higher-than-usual volume of patients. Surge capability, on the other hand, describes how well a facility can manage patients who require specialized care. These are services that “may not be routinely available … under normal operating conditions,” explains the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

In this sense, Covid-19 presented a problem with both concepts. It increased the need for surge capacity because of the high volume of patient utilization. It also affected surge capability by causing an influx of patients needing specific types of treatment, equipment, and isolation. As we know now after the end of PHE, many operators struggled with both of these factors.

Other Reasons to Plan for Surge Capacity

In addition to extreme events like a global pandemic, plenty of other factors require planning for surge capacity. Holiday season surges and staff absences can also cause situations where a facility has more patients than it can treat.

Some of these events are more predictable than others. For instance, this year’s holiday season may be busier than last year’s, which is hard to foresee. And some employee absences can’t be anticipated, such as those caused by illness or the unexpected loss of a key staff member. 

That makes planning for surge capacity a difficult task for leaders. As the ASPR puts it, it’s an “extraordinarily complex” process. But failing to meet the challenge will only make things worse. “Neglecting routine care and chronic disease management, as well as delaying immunizations … can lead to further volume surges,” as the AAP warns.

4 Ways to Successfully Plan for Surge Capacity

Fortunately, the question of what is surge capacity and why it matters isn’t exactly a new one. And that means a number of solutions already exist to help leaders cope with this important concern. Here’s a rundown of some of the most effective ways to plan for surge capacity.

#1: Schedule a Disaster Plan Update

Many leaders understand the importance of surge capacity planning. It’s already a cornerstone of many workforce management strategies, as well as disaster preparation and crisis management efforts. But leaders who don’t have such plans in place or haven’t updated them recently should set that as their first priority.

Additionally, plans that haven’t been updated to include the lessons of Covid-19 need even more urgent attention. “All clinical and office staff should be up to date with current COVID-19 and influenza vaccines, and all should adopt and demonstrate compliance with infection prevention and control (IPC) procedures,” as the AAP points out.

> Pro Tip: Get help with disaster planning with our disaster preparedness checklist.

#2: Leverage Technology to Enable At-Home Care

Taking advantage of the widespread availability of telehealth technology can help organizations treat more patients with less staff. These systems can help reduce the number of beds needed during a surge, while also helping to ensure that staff isn’t overworked.

“A ‘seasonality’ approach to virtual care would use telemedicine as a platform for rapidly activating parallel care pathways in response to fluctuating patient needs,” write the authors of an analysis of surge capacity solutions published in the Harvard Business Review.

In addition, the HBR authors point out that hospital-at-home (HaH) programs can “enable patients with acute conditions such as pneumonia or heart failure to be stabilized at home through home and virtual visits and remote-patient-monitoring technology.” Authorities recently extended financial waivers designed to increase use of these HaH programs through December 31, 2024.

> Pro tip: Maximize your use of technological solutions with the help of a healthcare managed service provider (MSP).

#3: Start Planning Ahead for the Next Holiday Season

“During the Christmas and New Year holidays, emergency departments (EDs) experience a sharp increase in patient volume,” as a study published in 2019 explains.

There are a number of reasons for this. For instance, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas correlate with outbreaks of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and now, Covid-19. The festive holiday spirit can also lead people to indulge in more reckless behavior. And this can result in everything from car accidents to a failure to keep up with prescribed medications.

There’s also increased anxiety during the holidays, which can be a trigger to people with mental health issues. It’s also a time when regular staff may be on vacation. Taken together, this can all lead to more patients than a facility can handle. Leaders can prepare by adjusting their staffing schedules now to allow for greater surge capacity during the next holiday season.

> Pro tip: Get help planning for the holiday season with an expert workforce management solutions consultant.

#4: Partner with a Healthcare Staffing Company

Budgeting for successful surge capacity can be tough. “America’s inflexible health care system does not behave like a normal market,” as the HBR authors point out. “Empty beds and operating rooms mean lost revenue, so health systems are incentivized to maximize utilization, which discourages them from keeping extra capacity available for admission spikes.”

Partnering with a healthcare staffing and recruitment company can help offset this problem. Because they let operators scale their workforce up and down when and where it’s needed, staffing companies help ensure access to essential staff without the need for extra hiring. The result is a more budget-friendly way to ensure surge capacity throughout the year.

> Pro tip: Choose a healthcare recruitment provider with a nationwide footprint to ensure access to the most qualified essential workers in the most locations.

Discover Your Surge Capacity Solution with CareerStaff

At CareerStaff Unlimited, we specialize in helping healthcare organizations of all types implement these types of solutions, and more. From nationwide clinical staffing to strategic workforce management services, we’re here to help with award-winning, Joint Commission-Certified solutions. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help your facility!

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