How to Manage Patient Census: 9 Essential Strategies

Last Updated on February 23, 2024

How to Manage Patient Census with Contingency Staffing Solutions

Essential as it is to successful workforce management, successful patient census management also presents some serious challenges for healthcare organizations. Moreover, as we move into a new year, patient census matters now more than ever. From contingency staffing to harnessing the growth of automation, discover how leaders can stay on top of patient census in their facilities and create a flexible healthcare workforce.

What Is Patient Census in Healthcare?

So, what is patient census, and why is successfully managing it central to success in the healthcare industry? Simply put, patient census is the number of people currently under the care of a specific facility. And, while that definition usually restricts census to inpatient care, successfully managing it also involves outpatient care, as we’ll explore below.

The Benefits of Understanding Patient Census

Keeping track of patient census data helps managers track utilization and how it changes over time. And that can help them understand the reasons for the outcomes they’re achieving. This knowledge empowers them to make long- and short-term improvements in a number of areas, such as:

  • Staffing (e.g., what new personnel may be need to be hired)
  • Scheduling (who works when, and how much staff is needed at any given time)
  • Infrastructure (what devices, equipment or tech may need to be replaced or purchased)

Tracking patient census can reveal other helpful information, too. For instance, it helps managers prepare for predictable spikes in utilization. This includes predictable surges during flu season or the holidays. It also includes a general increase in patient volume in the United States, a trend that the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA) attributes to factors like the aging population and greater access to insurance.

But other shifts in volume are harder to predict — the impact of a natural disaster, for instance, or a new virus. Whatever the cause, these shifts can catch facilities by surprise. Having the ability to adapt to a wide range of census scenarios helps leaders prepare as much as possible.

The Challenges of Managing Patient Census

Most leaders are aware of the importance of census, but may be unsure of the best way to manage it. Some try to maintain a fixed census, or planning for a specific volume throughout the year. Although this leaves room for both surges and drops in utilization, it can be costly in practice. For instance, it can lead to having to employ staff who aren’t needed, or not having enough when they are.

Planning for a low census — another common method — can also cause problems. It can leave facilities unable to adapt to sudden increases, which happen more and more often. It can also limit revenue opportunities, which can be an issue in a healthcare marketplace that’s growing more competitive.

At the same time, planning for a constantly high census is rarely feasible or cost effective. The best solution, then, is to stay as flexible as possible, with the ability to scale up or down quickly as needed. Challenging as that may seem, there are a number of methods to achieve it. 

How to Successfully Manage Patient Census

As with most other forms of healthcare workforce management, staying on top of patient census often means planning ahead. Luckily, today’s leaders have access to decades of best practices to help them find the right approach.

Writing in Mayo Clinic Proceedings James S. Newman, MD, MHA applies the analogy of patient care to census management. “By monitoring the hospital vital signs and responding with proper management and process improvement,” he writes, “the administrative and patient care teams can better maintain the hospital’s health, control the census, and avoid hospital failure.” Some ways to do this include:

Make Better Use of Technology

Today’s electronic health records (EHR) systems can be used to track patient data at a higher level than ever before, across departments and throughout entire facilities and organizations. And that data can help leaders model trends and anticipate future needs.

Improve Patient Education

Reduce avoidable utilization by making sure patients understand the importance of following up and adhering to their care plan.

Implement a Daily Huddle

Dr. Newman also recommends that facilities hold a physician-led huddle each day. This should include stakeholders from key departments like admissions, ER, and others.

Closely Manage Admissions

In a summary of Dr. Newman’s article published at HealthManagement.org, the authors urge leaders to regulate admissions. This can include deferring elective transfers during times of high utilization and ramping up outpatient capacity. Social workers can also help ensure patient follow-up and “arrange home services.”

Improve Scheduling

By better tracking workforce data, technology can also help managers make smarter schedules. This can reduce overtime, burnout, and turnover among staff, which improves their availability during times of high utilization.

Seize the Potential of Automation and Telehealth

Remote care technology can help facilities shift care to at-home settings, helping keep bed space free. Additionally, technology can also automate important workforce tasks like timesheet approvals, contract management, and assignment extensions. This saves valuable time for leaders and their administrative teams, and help ensure availability of essential workers. You can read more about how to leverage automation here.

Implement Flexible Staffing Models

The alternatives to traditional staffing have evolved by leaps and bounds in recent years. Today, solutions like contingency staffing are widely available, and increasingly essential to ensuring quality care.

Contingency Staffing: A Key Solution to Manage Patient Census

The use of per diem and travel nurses, as well as other contract workers, can supplement core staff on an as-needed basis. As such, contingency staffing helps managers ensure they have the backup staff they need to handle any shift in utilization or patient census.

Already trained, credentialed and verified, contingency workers can fit seamlessly into a facility’s workforce with minimum onboarding. As a result, they can help employers maintain ideal staffing ratios and patient safety at all times. They can also reduce skills gaps by providing short-term access to specialty workers. They can even help organizations offer new services or move into new markets.

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As an added bonus, contingency workers can also be used to improve morale among existing employees. Temp or travel workers can be used to give core staff much-needed, well-deserved time off during increased patient census, reducing burnout and turnover. Leaders can additionally retain core staff in their preferred areas of expertise, reducing overtime and boosting worker satisfaction while cutting costs for employers.

Stay on Top of Patient Census with Solutions from CareerStaff

As essential as contingency staffing is for staying on top of patient census, it also requires careful management. Many leaders turn to third-party staffing providers to ensure access to per diem and travel nurses, therapists, and every other contingency worker they may need. Doing so also reduces the cost of sourcing, and turns a complex process into one easily managed line item.

At CareerStaff Unlimited, we’re proud to deliver the contingency staffing solutions you need to stay on top of patient census. Get started now by requesting contingency staff today. Or contact us to learn more about how our Joint Commission-Certified staffing and workforce solutions can help your organization.

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