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Hospitals taking innovative steps to attract, retain skilled staff

Shortages of doctors, nurses and other skilled healthcare providers is a problem across the country. But on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where there are housing shortages and increased costs of living due to the number of homes and apartments destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and continuing struggles to recover from the storm, you might expect the medical staffing problem to be especially acute.

There have been shortages on the Coast, as elsewhere. There have been concerns, especially, about shortages of trauma care physicians. But hospitals are reporting that, overall, the Coast is in good shape.

“We’re doing far, far better than I would have ever expected in the immediate weeks following the storm,” says Gary Marchand, CEO of Memorial Hospital at Gulfport. “All our services are up and running. If we have a concern, it is with the ongoing ability to recruit and retain nurses and other ancillary personnel such as respiratory therapists, radiology technicians and lab technicians. We have ongoing concerns about recruitment and retention of those skill sets, and that is because there is a national shortage. But it is not impacting our operations today, nor has it been since the storm.”

Sticking with the Coast

Marchand says he has to give his employees a lot of credit. There are nationwide shortages in their profession. They could leave and go to work anywhere.

“They have stuck by this community in a very large measure,” Marchand says. “The employees that we have lost we have been able to replace. But, obviously, it is an ongoing concern. We are now fully staffed-up for our trauma program. We have prevented physicians from leaving the community by bringing them into the system in an employment model rather than a clinic model.”

Moving to a direct employment model has been a trend for a while not just on the Coast, but across the country. But that trend accelerated significantly after Katrina at Memorial.

Another important factor is pay. Marchand says the hospital continually evaluate several data bases about average compensation in the Southeast region in order to know what the hospital needs to pay to keep staff. The hospital also provides flex time when possible, and allows people to work four 10-hour days instead five eight-hour days.

“We try to do those sorts of things to make it easier to deal with the post Katrina lifestyle,” he says.

Alexis Williams, spokesperson for Singing River Hospital System in Jackson County, says like other Coast hospitals, it has lost a lot of employees post-Katrina.

“But we have worked very, very diligently to fill those positions,” Williams says. “We are staffed at pre-Katrina levels. It was hard at first, but we have definitely increased our staffing.”

One program that helps with nurse retention is providing scholarships and a RN to BSN (bachelor of science nursing) program at the hospital. The program, offered in conjunction with the University of Southern Mississippi, started a year ago at both at Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula and the Ocean Springs Hospital.

“It is a good program,” Williams said. “It takes nurses about two years to get a BSN, but the advantage is they can do it at the hospital. They don’t have to drive to Long Beach or Hattiesburg. Most have families and responsibilities. This is a great way to continue their education. That helps with our recruitment.”

Garden Park Medical Center in Gulfport experienced some physician losses after the storm, primarily in vascular surgery and general surgery.

“We are in the process of recruiting surgeons as well as primary care physicians to meet community and hospital needs,” says William Peaks, CEO of Garden Park Medical Center, Gulfport. “Garden Park has good physician coverage for most specialty areas. For the hospital staff, our turnover rate has stabilized since the storm and is now back to a more normal turnover rate. However, our goal is to reduce our turnover even more through our healthy work environment initiatives.”

Examples of their initiatives include improving its employee advisory group’s role to provide employees with another avenue to voice their opinions and have an impact, implementing a formal dispute resolution process, developing action plans to address issues from the annual employee opinion surveys, improving the frequency and type of communication methods to ensure employees are getting the most up-to-date information in a timely manner and obtaining feedback from new hires through a quarterly breakfast with senior management.

Garden Park is also improving its employee recognition program and providing holiday celebrations.

More housing important

In Hancock County, problems with skilled medical personnel shortages are easing as more housing becomes available.

“As the housing has been restored, it has really helped with the recruiting,” says Hal Leftwich, administrator of the Hancock Medical Center in Bay St. Louis. “Like all the other hospitals, we are experiencing a bit of a shortage with different skilled professions like nursing, laboratory and x ray. Everyone is experiencing that problem. We have stepped up some of the recruiting efforts. Our hospital has always had a reputation as a good place to work. As the housing improves in the community, we have seen it is much easier to recruit. The school systems and other employers have said same thing. People love to live here, but they need a place to live.”

Leftwich says the hospital is pretty well covered for physician specialties now except for orthopedic surgery.

“The general medical care needs of the population are well covered,” Leftwich says. “We are now recruiting trying to find another OB-GYN and pediatrician. But the highest need right now is orthopedic surgery because that would help the emergency room, too.”

Lori Bickel, director of marketing and physician relations at Biloxi Regional Medical Center & Gulf Coast Medical Center, says staffing continues to be a struggle.

“But we are able to maintain adequate staffing for our patient volumes,” Bickel says. “The market continues to become more competitive from a recruitment and retention standpoint.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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