COVID-19 forced an estimated 28 million elective surgeries to be delayed or canceled worldwide in 2020 alone. Some hospital surgical suites and ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) closed — either permanently or temporarily — and a significant number of physicians, nurses, and front desk employees either retired, were furloughed, or were laid off.
As COVID-19 cases declined prior to the emergence of the omicron variant, patients sought to reschedule delayed surgeries, and ASCs began to increase scheduled cases. When ASC leaders and administrators contacted furloughed or laid off employees to return to work, they often found the employees had little or no desire to return to their former jobs. A shortage of nurses led to bidding wars in which salaries reached levels unsustainable for ASCs. Front desk personnel took jobs outside of healthcare, where pay was higher and stress was much lower. The pre-COVID healthcare staffing shortage came roaring back at a level even worse than pre-pandemic levels.
The battle for talent is top of mind. Indeed, the current situation was one of the key takeaways from the Becker’s ASC Review 27th Annual Meeting. ASCs have always competed against hospitals and healthcare systems for local talent, but the competition has grown more intense with the introduction of hospital signing bonuses and work-from-home arrangements. During the Annual Meeting, ASC administrators reported considerable challenges with hiring experienced and accomplished talent within budgetary constraints. When key positions can’t be filled in a timely manner, administrators may find themselves performing critical, yet time-consuming tasks, such as gathering patient demographic and insurance information and obtaining pre-authorization for scheduled surgeries. While many ideas for attracting and retaining talent were discussed, a less explored option was how ASCs can leverage new innovations to reallocate or reduce front-end staff.
“Many ASCs use patient engagement tools to create economies of scale that hospitals don’t have,” according to Donna Greene, Vice President of Corporate Development for Gryphon Healthcare. “Staffing expense is the second highest cost for most ASCs, and any tool that reduces that expense while improving the patient experience is a resource that should be utilized.”
ASC front desk positions are most likely to benefit from process automation and patient engagement tools. Industry-leading patient engagement solutions such as Royal and Relatient provide solutions that empower the patient to essentially take on administrative tasks that would otherwise be managed by front desk staff. Using these solutions, patients can enter demographic and registration information, upload images of their driver’s license and insurance cards, perform self check-in, and — depending on the ASC’s policies —schedule post-surgical visits. The ASC can also utilize these tools to send appointment reminders, securely chat online with patients, and accept online payments.
Adding accounts receivable (AR) optimization technology to be used in conjunction with patient engagement tools can further improve front desk efficiency. According to research conducted by ZOLL Data Systems, implementing automated insurance verification and insurance discovery technology can reduce administrative burden by up to 30 percent on average. Administrators present at the Becker’s ASC Review Annual meeting indicated that it takes an average of four phone calls to gather necessary patient demographic information and verify coverage prior to a procedure. An automated insurance discovery tool can replace this time-consuming, manual process and cut the time to verify coverage by more than 95%. These tools can return the correct insurance coverage in seconds and eliminate multiple calls to the patient or referring physician to obtain the correct information.
Finally, obtaining prior authorization for a patient’s procedure can be one of the most burdensome aspects of the pre-billing process. Myndshft, a provider of automated prior authorization solutions, reports that obtaining prior authorization manually can take anywhere from one day to one month to process. Automating the prior authorization process further reduces the amount of staff time spent on inefficient processes.
The healthcare staffing crisis is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future, so it is essential that ASCs find ways to offset unfilled positions and identify workflow and process efficiencies that optimize current staff productivity. Utilizing technology to streamline patient engagement, AR optimization, and prior authorization processes can improve operational performance and reduce workload for front desk staff. The efficiencies that these technologies deliver can reduce the number of full-time employees required, enable current staff to concentrate on their core responsibilities, and deliver optimum reimbursement, thanks to more accurate data capture. Equally important, these tools can reduce stress on employees, helping with retention, while also promoting greater patient engagement and satisfaction.