An Ontario hospital says the implementation of workforce management software may help prevent the kinds of problems it faced during the recent SARS crisis.

When St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital was hit by SARS this past spring, trying to juggle staff became overwhelming. The hospital quickly

realized it needed to update the task from manual headache to streamlined system.

Located in southwestern Ontario, St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital (STEGH) serves between 80,000 and 90,000 residents in eight municipalities across Elgin County. Within the hospital, there are more than 900 employees that need to be scheduled around the clock.

On April 1, the hospital issued notice it was closing its doors to almost all visitors due to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and set up a screening process for those entering the hospital.

“”When we found ourselves in a situation of having to close our doors and beef up security and put people through screening systems we had to re-deploy staff and it was an absolute nightmare. We had to put people from laboratories and radiology and nuclear medicine and HR into different areas – it was extremely complex. This kind of software would help enormously in that kind of situation,”” said Malcolm Hopkins, vice-president of finance and information systems at STEGH.

After an extensive RFP process, the hospital chose a scheduling software package from Kelowna-B.C.-based Total Care Technologies called Environment for Scheduling Personnel (ESP) and eXpert workforce scheduling software.

Hopkins said the ability to automate the process using a software system is beneficial from the point of view of employees and managers in terms of optimizing the utilization of staff.

“”At the moment we’re on a completely manual basis and it’s a nightmare. Scheduling is very complex – completely with all the union rules and different categories of staff. When you’re running a 24/7 operation, you can imagine it is enormously complex,”” he said. “”You really need good software to handle this.””

By taking the onerous task of manual scheduling and automating it, health care providers can spend more time with patients, says Iain Mclean, general manager of Total Care.

“”Nurse managers have so little time to deal with the day to day pressures of staff scheduling. It’s a very important part of their task but it’s incredibly time-consuming when it’s done manually and what our systems allow them to do is provide that service automatically. It can be done either by the nurse managers or a centralized service from an administration perspective,”” he said.

In a manual scheduling system the nurse manager is the person preparing the schedule and calling people to see if they can come in to cover a shift.

“”If you have highly trained, highly paid nurse managers you’ve got to give them the maximum time in front of patients that you possibly can. If there are administrative tasks that can be done by somebody else then they should be done by somebody else,”” Mclean said.

During the SARS outbreak hospitals needed to know, not only who they could pull in to work a shift, but who could legally be there because they hadn’t worked the last shift. “”You need all that at your fingertips,”” he said.

Hopkins said STEGH chose Total Care because it was “”appropriate software for an appropriate size operation.””

Implementation will begin with a best practice consultation to make sure the process chosen will be appropriate for a hospital the size of STEGH.

“”We don’t just want to grab software and plop software on bad manual processes. There is also a degree of involvement from our frontline staff – managers and others. There needs to be an understanding of what we’re doing,”” he said. “”It’s a matter of getting everyone on board and singing from the same song book.””

And while there will be cost savings, Hopkins said the project has not been justified primarily on the hard costs.

“”Undoubtedly there will be hard costs savings, based simply on a more effective use of people’s time and also there will be considerable savings the right number of staff at the right time. I believe also sick time costs and other costs of that nature will be reduced. If we have a means of making life easier for our staff, that is obviously something we want to strive for.””

Total Care has numerous projects with facilities in western Canada including Calgary and Edmonton and many in the lower mainland of British Columbia. Mclean says the company claims 20 per cent market share in Ontario and are continuing to grow.

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