How to Fix Staffing Issues in the Perioperative Department

Across healthcare organizations nationwide, staffing persists as a critical issue. Despite widespread attention, many perioperative departments grapple with justifying required staff and achieving workforce  stability, complicating their efforts to combat what feels like an unseen adversary effectively.

Amid fluctuating staffing levels influenced by turnover and the costly use of travelers, perioperative departments often need help to grasp their actual staffing needs. This ongoing uncertainty hampers their ability to devise long-term strategies and meet productivity targets. 

As a result, leadership across the care continuum often finds their attention monopolized by immediate staffing concerns, leaving little room to pursue broader strategic initiatives. Here, we’ll dig deeper into this issue and explore solutions proven in the field. By understanding their needs and using an insight-driving staffing summary tool, healthcare organizations can reduce their dependencies on travelers, retain quality clinicians, and unify their workforce management strategies across departments. Let’s get started. 

Perioperative Departments Must First Understand Their Exact Staffing Needs

In healthcare organizations nationwide, a crucial step toward solving staffing challenges is clearly understanding their exact staffing needs. Often, inadequate tracking leads to confusion and missed opportunities. Neglecting follow-ups in the hiring process, failing to keep tabs on temporary staff, or not fully utilizing clinicians in training can cause staffing budgets to deviate drastically from projections.

By not fully understanding their staffing needs or the scope of their challenges, perioperative departments face two costly issues: an increased reliance on travelers and a deteriorated staff experience. These issues not only strain budgets but also impact the overall morale and effectiveness of the healthcare team.

1. Dependence on Travelers Pushes Perioperative Departments Over Budget

Traveling clinicians have been pivotal in helping perioperative departments bridge staffing gaps. However, this solution comes at a significant cost. Traveling nurses cost as much as $160 an hour, far outpacing the national hourly average for nurses, roughly $43.

Sustained reliance on such costly temporary staffing solutions can lead an organization to exceed its staffing budget, as each traveling clinician can cost roughly three times more than a salaried nurse. The strain that this practice creates demands a strategic reevaluation of staffing practices to maintain fiscal health and operational efficiency.

2. Negative Staff Experiences Drive a Costly Turnover Cycle

When perioperative departments lack a clear grasp of their true staffing needs, it compounds the challenges their current staff face. Nurses are often required to manage multiple shift rotations and excessive call or overtime due to staffing shortages. In the operating room, inadequate scheduling leads to staff scrambling to cover shifts well beyond their scheduled hours. Over time, the unpredictability of schedules and inconsistent support levels contribute to significant frustration and negativity, prompting clinical staff to seek opportunities with other organizations.

This negative staff experience and increased reliance on traveling clinicians can create a cyclical problem. As the culture deteriorates due to the lack of long-term team integration, turnover accelerates, increasing reliance on temporary staff, which further undermines the organizational culture.

These issues aren’t the fault of the clinicians who choose to leave or the travelers who fill the gaps. Instead, they are natural, albeit unintended and costly, consequences of an organization’s struggle to accurately assess and address its staffing needs.

How a Staffing Summary Tool Can Get Perioperative Staffing Under Control

Discrepancies between a perioperative department’s allocated staffing budget and actual expenditures can jeopardize the organization’s sustainability. Traditionally, resolving the factors that destabilize budgets has proven challenging.

Gerry Biala, Senior Vice President at Sullivan Healthcare Consulting, has spent years developing, testing, and refining a methodology that empowers perioperative departments to reclaim control over their staffing. This process cultivates a real-time comprehension of a healthcare organization’s workforce, enabling the systematic identification and resolution of fundamental staffing challenges.

The staffing summary tool offers a weekly perspective on how an organization’s anticipated staffing budget aligns with actual figures. This snapshot includes:

  • The number of Full-Time Equivalents (FTEs) budgeted versus the number currently filled
  • The use of travelers to bridge the gap between budgeted and filled FTE roles
  • The extent of overtime worked by FTEs
  • The number of clinicians currently in training and the actual dates they’ll become available

The staffing summary tool, while simple, delivers critical, comprehensive insights to workforce management teams. Refocusing the team’s attention away from immediate crises equips them to think in the longer term and to tackle their staffing challenges with renewed focus. Three key outcomes promoted by the staffing summary are:

1. Making Informed Staffing Decisions

In today’s healthcare landscape, relying solely on an annual budget or staffing projection is insufficient to address the dynamic costs associated with staffing, which can fluctuate significantly from week to week. The first step for perioperative departments is to establish a clear understanding of weekly staffing levels and how these snapshots contribute to the broader workforce challenges they face. Organizations are better equipped to make informed decisions with precise knowledge of their current staffing status.

Consider this scenario: a perioperative department identifies a vacancy in a department. Its knee-jerk reaction could be to hire a traveler to avoid coverage gaps. However, if they know that a nurse in training will soon qualify to fill this position, they might opt to wait instead of incurring additional costs. Without a real-time view of staffing, a perioperative department might continue employing the traveler even after the trained nurse becomes available, leading to unnecessary expenses.

Biala notes that when workforce management teams use a staffing summary tool, “There’s almost pleasure in it because it’s like a game board. They can look at it and ask, ‘How can I shift this around to meet my goals?’” An up-to-date staffing summary can help perioperative departments understand where they are, make smart decisions, and avoid redundancies that cost them big in the long run.

2. Identifying the Roots of Staffing Problems

Talent shortages are a common challenge for most perioperative departments. Yet, a more detailed examination often uncovers specific shortages for particular positions within a perioperative department. However, perioperative departments operate as interconnected systems, and their success hinges on every component functioning cohesively. A deficiency in one area can impact the organization as a whole. Without an up-to-date staffing summary, perioperative departments risk addressing only the symptoms of staffing issues rather than the underlying root causes.

Take, for instance, an OR department lacking patient transport staff. This shortage delays procedure start times and forces nurses to work longer shifts than planned. Such frustrations can result in increased turnover. If the perioperative department only examines where attrition is coming from, it might simply conclude that it needs more nurses. Going ahead and hiring additional nurses without addressing the root cause can leave the department in a costly cycle of continuous turnover.

A comprehensive staffing summary empowers workforce management teams to delve deeper than surface-level problems and pinpoint the core issues. By identifying the fundamental causes of staffing challenges — like patient transport staff, in this case — perioperative departments can make strategic decisions that build the foundation for a resilient and sustainable workforce.

Related read

See how one hospital saved $5.6 million with solutions like this in Sullivan’s case story, A Winning Tide in the OR and Beyond.

3. Align Leaders Across Departments to Address Core Staffing Challenges

The most successful perioperative departments have one thing in common: great leadership. What separates great leadership from good leadership is alignment. Great leaders are only truly effective when they can align other support departments, such as Human Resources with their department toward a shared goal.

For perioperative departments grappling with staffing challenges, all interdependent departmental leaders must be in alignment in understanding the dynamics of perioperative staffing. This unity is key to mitigating the effects of staffing shortages and turnover and maximizing the potential of the current workforce.

Equipped with a real-time staffing summary tool, departmental leaders share a clear,  accurate perspective on how recruitment and turnover impact their areas and the broader organizational staffing landscape. With this knowledge, departments can collaborate towards a collective goal rather than competing for staffing resources, which may temporarily benefit one area at the expense of another. This strategic cooperation helps ensure that all parts of the perioperative department system are supported and effective, enhancing overall performance and patient care.

Visibility is the Key to Sustainable Staffing Change

To address any problem in any healthcare organization, you need to start with visibility. Biala’s staffing summary tools have helped numerous perioperative departments develop a clear line of sight into their teams’ fundamental workforce challenges, enabling vital change.

Real-time staffing insights empower leaders to make impactful staffing decisions, improve patient outcomes and throughput, build a sustainable culture, and save millions in staffing costs over time.

If your organization is facing staffing challenges, Sullivan’s team of healthcare consultants can help find solutions. Contact our team today to start managing to higher margins.

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