Dec 21 2020

When Is Staff Augmentation Necessary in Health IT?

Hiring on-demand help gives organizations quick (and scalable) bandwidth to tackle a range of important projects.

Healthcare organizations are increasingly facing budget constraints, even as in-house IT teams are being tasked with larger, more complicated duties. 

Meanwhile, digital transformation efforts — as well as ongoing challenges of COVID-19 — have accelerated tectonic shifts in care delivery, billing and cybersecurity.

Staff augmentation allows healthcare systems to bring in experts for short-term projects and fill gaps in specific staffing needs. By gaining access to unique skill sets without having to hire additional full-time employees, this practice can provide health systems with greater flexibility in completing critical IT projects.

READ MORE: Learn 5 ways health IT teams can save money during COVID-19.

It’s a sizable undertaking: The global staffing industry, a primary supplier of staff augmentation talent, was estimated to support $491 billion in annual spending just prior to the pandemic — and a resulting migration toward remote work and increased investments in digital infrastructure could spur more growth.

“I’ve always believed there’s a great place for staff augmentation in healthcare IT,” says Ed McCallister, senior vice president and CIO at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

Slim operating margins, he adds, require organizational leaders to be “extremely precise” when deploying new resources. 

“Telemedicine is a great example; we went from zero to 100 in telemedicine overnight,” McCallister says. “We did more in a day than we had in six months. We had a strong team, but we absolutely had staff augmentation to get us to where we needed to be.”

UPMC uses a hybrid augmentation model. An in-house technical staff that knows the organization inside and out typically handles new and evolving jobs; augmented teams “add to the party” by tackling routine tasks, McCallister says.

“There’s a model where you ramp up resources for a new initiative, but that creates a transition time,” he adds. “I’ve tried to assign our UPMC team to do those type of projects while we use staff augmentation to keep the lights on.”

Hybrid IT Staffing Models Support Organizational Needs

The hybrid notion can also work in reverse. Healthcare organizations might look to an outside party to identify workers who can push innovation forward, says Emily Pollak, senior business development manager for IT and digital marketing at the Addison Group, a staffing and recruitment firm.

“Things are changing at such a fast pace, you don’t know when there’s going to be a shortage of staff,” says Pollak, who cites the arrangement’s elasticity as a benefit. “Having staff augmentation in place allows healthcare professionals to keep their focus on day-to-day operations to keep things running smoothly.”

Still, Pollak notes, a growing reliance on next-generation technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality has produced a “huge surge” of healthcare clients looking to take big leaps forward but who face a constant struggle because “they’re already two steps behind” due to low staff bandwidth. 

“Staff augmentation is simply the best way to amp up resources while maintaining the quality of the home team,” she says. 

Moreover, the highly detailed security, patient privacy and regulatory particulars of the healthcare industry must be considered and accounted for during the onboarding process for these workers.

Ed McCallister, Senior Vice President and CIO, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
We went from zero to 100 in telemedicine overnight. We had a strong team, but we absolutely had staff augmentation to get us to where we needed to be.

Ed McCallister Senior Vice President and CIO, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

The lift is worth it for organizations seeking to launch complex initiatives that improve patient care and experience, says Zachary Tisch, vice president of strategic growth for Pivot Point Consulting. Such efforts may require knowledge-specific fields such as data analytics and population health.

“Using staff augmentation to bring in some expertise can build up those programs in large health systems through someone who can bring a plan and put the right governance around it,” Tisch says. “That person should serve a player/coach role.” 

In other words, these need to be people who not only can get a project across the finish line but can also serve as mentors and help position programs for success. 

There’s more to consider beyond the skill set, though. “Because there is an outsider coming in, we do a lot of staff coaching; a lot of the initial work is adapting them to that particular client,” Tisch says. “If you haven’t built the bridges, you can’t build the right team dynamic.”

That dynamic hinges on successful integration of augmented and in-house IT teams — a crucial step for efficiency and team morale, McCallister says.

“If you create that team approach and have a mix of each, I think it’s a healthier model by fostering partnership, collaboration and finding those niche skills,” he says. 

Remote Work Boosts Staff Augmentation Potential, Availability

The ability to acquire temporary staff quickly and to “test-drive” their roles are key reasons why McCallister prefers staff augmentation.

“With the right staff augmentation partner, you create a relationship and the ability to be fluid in who you bring on and how long they stay on,” he says. “If you have a blended team, it’s the way to go.

“If it’s a new and exciting project, we should not defer to our staff augmentation program, and we make sure we have the right people working on the right projects for the long term.”

In a way, finding the right people has become easier. Just as it has for many full-time healthcare IT staffers, COVID-19 also has pushed IT staff augmentation deployments remote, which has vastly widened the available talent pool.

“It’s had a huge impact on staff augmentation, and it has blurred the line between staff augmentation and full-time employees,” McCallister says. “We’re not going back to what it was, and it creates opportunities that weren’t there before.”

Tisch says he expects the trend toward increased use of IT staff augmentation to accelerate due to the growing health IT infrastructure — including the need for seamless data exchanges, better connections between payers and providers and care delivery supported outside the four walls of a hospital or clinic.

“It’s getting more complicated every day, so it’s hard to know where to place your bets — that’s why we see staff augmentation,” Tisch says. “It allows you to solve that problem in weeks instead of months, and for that reason, there’s going to be a continued need.”

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