In a bit of a spot: How the NHS could utilise workforce management solutions to deal with extraordinary situations

Posted by Rachael Pullen on May 7, 2013

The story has been all over the news for the past few months; the measles outbreak in Wales has reminded us all how important it is that our families get access to the right healthcare at the right time.

The NHS has been slow to respond to the outbreak which began in November 2012, and only in the last few weeks has it been offering additional vaccination clinics to children and only in the past few days provided vaccination clinics to staff that may be at risk.

A similar issue occurred with the Swine Flu outbreak in 2009. The media hype created a blind panic about, not only the disease, but also the vaccination. Information from the Department of Health was scarce and local NHS Trusts were given sketchy information about the vaccination and the delivery of the programme.

I worked in the NHS during this time and was in charge of mobilising the vaccination programme over a wide geographic area. Now I look back and wonder; if an integrated workforce management system had been in place, could the programme have run any smoother? The answer is yes.

The Swine Flu vaccination had to be given to both inpatients and staff as quickly as possible to prevent outbreak and subsequent quarantine. It meant an efficient programme had to be developed to provide vaccinations to all age groups across a geographic region that took in three separate counties. The programme was hindered by the fact that the programme and its clinics were to be provided by existing clinical staff on top of their day jobs.

Rosters were drawn up using the humble whiteboard and a map with pins in it and every day we amended this outdated system until the vaccination programme was complete.

Further complications arose, as two separate vaccines were then developed, both with differing shelf lives and storage requirements. NHS Trusts were not aware of which vaccine they would receive until the day of delivery. Staff had to have updated training on emergency care in case of life threatening reactions to the unknown vaccine, and consent for vaccination had to be sought on every occasion.

The paperwork was immense. Each clinic had consent forms from each patient receiving the vaccine, and the results had to be manually input into spreadsheet’s which had to be reported back to the Department of Health.

Ultimately the vaccination programme was a success, one that was recognised by the Trust’s CEO, and only a few members of staff and patients actually fell ill. Crisis was averted.

I suspect the same situation can be said for the scramble to provide vaccination clinics in Wales.

But what if we’d had a robust system in place that could work around an unpredictable event; which could schedule the staff with the right skills at the right time? What if we had been able to access patient health records electronically on a mobile device and been able to upload vaccination details directly at the time of injection rather than manually sifting through paperwork?

The truth is that the programme would have run far more efficiently and effectively and would have saved the Trust and the staff involved both time and money.

This is what having a robust workforce management system gives you. By implementing an automated rostering and scheduling solution, it will force an organisation to really understand the demand they have for their greatest assets – people.

Understanding workforce demand is half the battle, but once understood, demand patterns or tasks can be profiled in advance, or in an ad-hoc manner to apply at a moment’s notice, hence addressing the need to flexibly adjust workforce plans to meet the needs of exceptional circumstances, such as an outbreak.
Not only can a solution such as this alleviate the manual pressures these events create, it does so in an optimised and automatic way. The system sources the right number of people to work in the right place and most importantly, with the correct skillset.

Mobility solutions can also strengthen communication channels to enable your workforce to respond with agility and speed, with access to all the relevant information.
Analytics and reporting would allow you to look back at how you handled the situation. This can then be used to help better inform future workforce planning for exceptional situations to ensure business continuity is provided without having a negative effect on patient care.

By combining a workforce management system and a mobile strategy, NHS Trusts would be able to run far more efficiently and be able to respond to unprecedented events with a much more coordinated approach. Data would be readily available to Trust boards and the Department of Health and clinical staff would have the ability to update patient’s records without having to return to base.

As we move forward with a modern healthcare service we need to build in systems that allow us to respond efficiently and effectively to unplanned and sometimes unprecedented events.