The Policy Insights Forum (PIF) was pleased to welcome Major General (ret'd) Jean-Robert Bernier, former Surgeon General of Canada and Director of Ontario Health, and Michael Li, Vice President of Operations & Customer Success at BookJane Inc. on Friday, April 30, 2021. The event was hosted by Fatima Atik and moderated by The Hon. Jamie Baillie. The topic of this PIF event was the lessons we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and how technology is helping healthcare systems meet their staffing challenges. Both guests complemented each other’s approach to the subject.
The main focus of the conversation was human resources (HR) management, an issue that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted even further. The world became more aware of the existing shortage of healthcare staff and the unprecedented burden placed on their shoulders. Resources of all kinds are limited and the healthcare system is no exception. Finding ways to address this issue is fundamental, and as technology is helping healthcare systems meet staffing challenges, this allows for the ability to quickly pivot to new services and models and expand into adjacent markets and reach the underserved more cost-effectively than traditional businesses.
As Michael Li stated during the conference, technology can help provide better care for patients by empowering the frontline and reducing the number of administrative tasks entrusted to them. That is something his company, BookJane Inc., has strived to put forth through their app, which enables healthcare facilities to organize their staff's shifts. Healthcare staff can focus on what they are meant to do: taking care of patients.
MGen Bernier, speaking on behalf of himself and not Ontario Health, stressed that the pandemic created a window of opportunity to overcome challenges to the broader implementation of technology in certain domains and to better manage the staffing crisis and prepare for the future. Our companies and governments faced an urgent challenge that was surprising to many. This forced environmental change led to an accelerated decision-making process, and vaccine production is a striking example. When research & development, evaluation, regulation, and implementation are not slowed or hindered by institutional inertia or other priorities and have greater access to resources, processes can be much quicker.
MGen Bernier also outlined the lessons we learned from earlier pandemics, such as SARS, in applying our understanding to prevent further crises. Maintaining health and epidemic surveillance systems, both at a national and international level, will help us better assess the risks we face and is crucial in preparing for and mitigating the consequences of future pandemics. As COVID-19 most recently demonstrated, maintaining our global public health alert system would have been relatively inexpensive compared to the subsequent costs of insufficient preparation. Infectious disease surveillance should always be maintained regardless of other political priorities.
Pre-pandemic challenges to the sustainability of health budgets have been aggravated by COVID-19-related expenditures, such that accumulating government debt and system sustainability will demand greater health system efficiency. Greater system integration, digital transformation, and technology can enhance efficiency, such as the use of digital technology to facilitate health system administrative tasks. The technologization of the healthcare system, to some extent, is a possible and realistic solution and can enable that transition.
Michael Li gave several examples of how his company assisted many hospitals and healthcare facilities in dealing with their staff shift organization and helped optimize their functioning. Coordination is a key factor of success since our supply of health workers is limited. As MGen Bernier remarked, there is a need for better and more nimble organization and allocation of this workforce where and when it is most needed. Technology can help address this need by avoiding duplicates, promoting integration and efficiency, and thus optimizing the best use of limited human resources.
By increasing the demand for front-line health personnel while decreasing their availability, COVID-19 increased the urgency of reducing administrative burden and improving staff management and assignment. As MGen Bernier said, they have shown extraordinary resilience and made personal sacrifices to adapt themselves to the new work conditions and to expand care capacity, despite a limited pre-existing health system surge capacity. The use of HR management technology to optimize their employment could further enhance capacity, thus contributing to better provider experience and patient care.