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Sound Emergency Preparedness Plans Consider the Impact of Physician Vacancies

Jackson Physician Search
October 14, 2020

The pandemic has given hospital administrators the unwanted experience of activating their emergency operations plans or emergency preparedness plans. With no immediate end in sight, preparing for the next spike in infections or, alternatively, the next natural disaster is top of mind throughout healthcare organizations.

Granted, no emergency preparedness plan can cover every conceivable situation as well as a hospital would like, especially since it can be difficult to maintain ideal physician staffing levels due to the growing physician shortage. But the more scenarios your healthcare facility is prepared for, the more effective your response will be when crisis strikes.

A formal Emergency Operations Plan outlines how a healthcare facility will respond to and manage an emergency. It includes the following six categories:

  • Communications
  • Resources and assets
  • Safety and security
  • Staff responsibilities
  • Utilities
  • Clinical support activities

By taking an “all hazards” approach, hospitals are well-equipped to address a crisis, just as they continue to do with COVID-19. But no matter how well prepared a facility is for an unexpected emergency, physician vacancies can cause derailment.

First, Consider Your Physician Community Needs Assessment

It’s customary for hospitals to partake in a periodic physician community needs assessment to determine proper staffing levels by specialty. This staffing plan also serves to lay the groundwork for physician recruitment.

In addition to identifying physician specialties that need to be added to your current staff to meet demand, you need to plan for physician retirements. With two out of five doctors reaching retirement age this year, now is the time to initiate retirement discussions with your senior staff so you can build in sufficient time to recruit.

Our recent retirement survey showed physicians feel six months is plenty of retirement notice, while administrators want one to three years notice. Clearly there is a disconnect, which could expose risks to your staffing plan.

Read The Realities of Physician Retirements Whitepaper

Normal physician turnover will also affect your staffing plan. Up to 7% or 50,000 physicians relocate for a new position each year. Practicing continuous physician recruitment can help to minimize the downside of turnover by keeping your physician pipeline full. Fostering a positive relationship with candidates now ensures that you will have physicians ready to join your organization when you have an opportunity.

Next, Identify Emergencies Your Facility May Face

As with any plan, there is no one-size-fits-all solution because your organization may have to react differently based on the type of emergency. In general, your team should discuss the “big three” when deciding on how to develop your emergency plans. The most common emergencies will be related to medical, environmental, and violence or civil disturbance. Over the past eight months, the U.S. has sadly experienced all three of these.

It is essential that for each type of emergency, you have identified the primary threats to the safety of patients and staff, as well as any threats that impair the functionality and capacity of your operations. Different emergencies will contain various threats meaning you may need different protocols.

Develop Emergency Protocols

Thorough, well-defined protocols allow your providers and staff to act with efficiency and confidence, rather than getting caught up in the chaos of trying to figure out what to do next. Local emergency response officials can be valuable resources for planning and developing your response protocols. Whether they are directly involved in the preparation or if they are used as a resource to provide input or assess what you have in place, they will have access to state and federal information that may not be readily available.

Another critical aspect of your emergency protocols is that they are not created as person-specific responsibilities but should be position-centric. Anytime someone is covering a job for another staff member who is on vacation or otherwise unavailable, that person should be aware of any emergency protocols that are included with those job responsibilities.

Conduct Training and Simulations

If your facility has experienced a surge in COVID-19 patients, you already have a clear indication of how well your emergency response plan supported the actions that needed to be taken. You also know how familiar your staff was with the established protocols. Whether your assessment is that everything went smoothly or that the plan was lacking, the experience should be used as a learning tool for improvement.

The current crisis has taught us that emergency preparedness plans are something that should not only be revisited at periodic intervals but discussed and revised in earnest. Further, training should be scheduled and mandatory for all staff at regular intervals to ensure that the concepts are clear and understood.

Maintaining Emergency Supplies

Nobody could have predicted the scale of the PPE shortage when COVID-19 hit, but it’s a reminder that having protocols in place to routinely inventory emergency medications and supplies is important. It is also good practice to ensure none of the products or packaging are compromised, expirations are regularly checked, and that the supplies are separated from everyday supplies so they are not mistakenly used.

An Ounce of Prevention

While the steps above are not inclusive of every aspect of an emergency preparedness plan, hopefully they serve as prompters to initiate a discussion about areas where improvement could be needed. We have also included some helpful links below.

As you review your emergency preparedness plan, reflect on the status of your current physician openings. If you’re located in a rural area, need a specialist that is historically tough to recruit, or haven’t been attracting a steady pipeline of physician candidates to meet your staffing plan goals, reach out to Jackson Physician Search. Our recruitment team has access to a deep pool of physician candidates and an established nationwide network to help you fill even the most challenging vacancies.

Emergency Preparedness Resources


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