Hospital Finances Medical Economics

Hospitals Should Embrace Working From Home

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many businesses to adapt to employees working from home and hospitals are no exception. When the pandemic is over, should these workers continue to work from home? In many cases, the answer is yes. Before COVID, teleconferencing usually meant calling in on a multi-line telephone system. These systems were clunky and often either did not work at all or had acoustics that were so bad that many participants could not be heard. The pandemic fostered a technical revolution in telecommunications that now permits high quality video teleconferencing. Simultaneously, the widespread use of electronic medical records made remote patient care feasible. There are several key advantages of working from home that can result in a competitive advantage for hospitals and other businesses that embrace the concept.

Reduced office space requirements

Everyone wants their own office. Employees gauge their value by how many square feet they have, how many windows they have, how nice the office furniture is, and what kind of view their office has. When we hire a new doctor, the first question we get asked is usually “Where is my office going to be?”. But hospitals are far more than just doctors and nurses, there are a whole cadre of support staff necessary for operations, revenue cycle, quality, compliance, etc. The bureaucracy of American healthcare has grown dramatically over the past 3 decades and with it has come the need for more and more of these support staff. In addition, as hospitals have increasingly expanded outpatient clinical operations, there are even more administrative staff necessary to oversee these non-hospital-based activities. And every one of those employees wants an office.

As hospital census grows within a confined building, patient care space encroaches on office space. When new hospital additions are built, the emphasis is on return on investment in square footage and there is relatively little direct return on investment for individual offices (as opposed to clinical space). As a consequence, office space is often relegated to decommissioned patient care areas or repurposed windowless basements areas. Many hospital operations have been moved off-site to dedicated office buildings in areas where real estate is less expensive.

Office space is costly. A standard office is about 150 sq ft and even a standard cubicle is 48 sq ft. Here in Columbus, Ohio, office space rents for an average of about $22 per sq ft per year. Therefore, the cost of individual offices is expensive:

  • Standard office = $3,300/year
  • Small office = $2,640/year
  • Cubicle = $2,056

And these costs do not include the additional cost of square footage devoted to common space such as hallways, break rooms, waiting areas, and bathrooms! Once you add in the cost of these common areas, office furniture, and utilities, the cost of maintaining on-site administrative offices in the hospital is staggering.

When staff work from home, they no longer need individual offices and so these overhead costs drop considerably. The hospital can then dedicate a much smaller amount of space for “hoteling” offices or cubicles that can be used by many different physicians or administrative employees during those times that they must be physically in the hospital.

Reduced employee transportation and parking costs

Based on typical travel distances of 5 to 13 miles to commute to work in the United States, most people spend $2,000 – $5,000 per year to commute. In addition, many hospitals (particularly in urban areas) require staff to pay to park on-site. Last year, my cost for a campus parking garage pass was $1,200. These costs do not appear on hospitals’ financial statements but they do appear on the employees checking account statements. I estimate that my cost of parking and driving to work was $3,000 per year but that is partly because I already had a car. If I did not already have a car and needed to get one just so I could commute, then my cost would be $9,000 per year.

For the employee, these personal expenses are significant. By eliminating or reducing these costs, the hospital can pay that employee a lower salary and that employee can still have the same net disposable income. If the hospital continues to pay the original salary, then for the employee, it is like getting a several thousand dollar a year raise.

Employee residence flexibility

How often have you had a highly valued employee resign because their spouse got a job in another city? Or because they needed to move to be close to an aging parent out of state? Or because they wanted to be near the mountians/ocean? Or because they were tired of the weather in your city? Or because they wanted to move to a more rural area? Or because they move closer to a city? Not only do you lose an experienced employee but the average cost to replace an employee is equivalent to 6-9 months of that employee’s salary. That works out to $30,000 to $45,000 for a typical non-physician hospital employee.

A few years ago, a radiology colleague of mine moved to New Zealand where he could read x-rays and CT scans over the internet during the daytime in New Zealand that were being done at night in Ohio. He was happy because he could live in his dream location and the hospital’s radiology department was happy because the Ohio-based radiologists no longer needed to do night shifts reading films. Remote working was a win-win for everyone in this case.

By working from home, employees no longer need to be in the same city as the hospital. They don’t need to be in the same state or even the same country. This allows many employees to permanently move to a different part of the country. But it also allows those employees to travel more while working at the same time. For example, a few weeks ago, my wife and I rented a house  on the coast in Northern California. Two of our daughters joined us – they both worked remotely by day and we were able to have family time together in the evenings and weekends.

For many employees, this flexibility allows them to buy a home in a less expensive community, move to a better school system, or be happier because they were able to move closer to friends and family.

Better job applicant pool

In the past, when the hospital posted a job opening, the applicant pool was limited to people who either already lived within commuting distance of the hospital or who were willing to move within commuting distance. This necessarily restricted the applicant pool and as a result, the hospital often ended up with a less than ideal employee for that job. By allowing employees to work remotely, the applicant pool increases in size exponentially. The hospital now has access to people who live outside of the community and would never have applied for the job in the past.

This can be particularly important for hospitals in smaller communities or rural areas where the applicant pool for most jobs is particularly small due to the size of the local population.

More productive employees (maybe)

Employees who are sequestered alone at home can have fewer distractions from co-workers who want to chat. They can walk 20 feet to get a cup of coffee in their kitchen versus taking an elevator to the cafeteria and waiting in line for 5 minutes. They can join a meeting with a mouse click rather than walking to a different building on the hospital campus. They don’t have to spend the 55 minutes per day that the average American spends commuting to work. All of these can increase employee productivity.

However, in some situations, employees working from home can have reduced productivity. For example, if the employee has children at home and they are multitasking work with childcare. Of if the absence of those on-site chats with co-workers reduces the opportunity for mentoring and collaboration.

Some have argued that virtual meetings are less effective because remote attendees can be less engaged when no one can see them. This is especially more likely to happen if virtual meetings become more like webinars, when a single presenter armed with a few dozen PowerPoint word slides talks non-stop for 60 minutes. One way to counteract this is to about Steve Jobs’ 3-point formula for conducting meetings:

  1. Keep the number of participants small – ideally 3 to 5 people
  2. Keep the agenda short – no more than 3 items
  3. Keep the length short – no more than 30 minutes

Fewer sick days

Employees who are moderately or severely ill should not work. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees were required to stay home for 14 days because of isolation requirements after an exposure. Some had mild or asymptomatic COVID infections but had to remain on home quarantine for 10 days. Those employees who could work from home did not need to stop working in these situations.

Our workplaces are also the site that many employees acquire infections such as colds and the flu. Less face-to-face exposure to co-workers means fewer of these infections and consequently, fewer sick days.

Studies prior to COVID-19 showed that people working from home used fewer sick days than people working on-site at an office. However, studies have also shown that people working from home were more likely to continue to work when they were sick than people working on-site at an office. Sometimes, working remotely while having a mild illness can be appropriate. For example, when an employee has a mild cold that has minimal impact on productivity but the employee is discouraged from coming to the hospital in order to prevent infecting others. But there has to be expectations that when a remote employee has more than just a mild illness, they should use sick time.

Hospital jobs amenable to working remotely

  1. Telemedicine. Not only does the provider (doctor, NP, PA, nurse midwife, etc.) not need to be in the office, but the registration staff and nurses don’t need to be there either. Psychologists, speech therapists, and dietitians can also frequently work remotely.
  2. Phone triage nurses. Many outpatient practices use triage nurses for patient calls. Hospitals use triage nurses for inter-hospital transfers. In neither situation does the nurse need to be on-site.
  3. Schedulers. Even before COVID-19, many employees who scheduled office visits, hospital admissions, and procedures worked from home.
  4. Revenue cycle staff. Coding and billing staff are often the first to be moved away from the hospital campus to an off-site office building. Working from home is a natural transition.
  5. Pre-admission screening. Similar to revenue cycle, staff who screen pre-operative and pre-procedure patients for insurance coverage do not need to be located on-site.
  6. Compliance staff. The nurses or administrative staff who do quality and compliance only need access to a computer and a phone.
  7. Case management. Certain elements of case management require the case manager to have face-to-face meetings with inpatients. However, other elements only require access to the electronic medical record. Separating these responsibilities permits some case management staff to work from home.
  8. Social services. Social workers who are primarily responsible for outpatients can often work from home.
  9. Office assistants. Many of the tasks that would have in the past be classified as secretarial do not require on-site presence. Some of these tasks include answering phones, doing transcription, preparing reports, and making schedules.
  10. Technology support. Every hospital needs computer savvy people to solve password problems, trouble shoot electronic medical record access, and generally help out technologically-impaired hospital staff. As long as they have computer access, they can do most of their work anywhere.
  11. Purchasing staff. This can include everyone from those who prepare contracts with hospital vendors to supply chain employees responsible for purchasing supplies and maintaining inventories.
  12. Recruiters. Just as an increasing number of new employees will be working remotely from distant locations, recruiters can use virtual communications to recruit these employees.
  13. Communications and marketing. In the past, a lot of this work was done by phone and COVID-19 has shown that the majority of this work can be done virtually.
  14. Interpreters. For years, hospitals and physician offices have used interpreters/translators by telephone or internet connection when providing care for patients who do not speak English.

Hospitals allowing remote working have a competitive advantage

Flying into Phoenix from California earlier this month, I saw mile after mile of office buildings with empty parking lots… at noon on a Thursday. It is because of the mass migration of employees from offices to remote working brought on by the COVID-19. The pandemic has given American workers a taste of what it is like to work from home. Many of those workers like it and do not want to go back to the office. Our nation’s hospitals are no different than those office buildings in Phoenix. Certain jobs require employees to be physically present, such as doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists providing inpatient or procedural care. However, an increasingly large number of employees do not need to be physically present in the hospital. Those hospitals that can adapt to the new paradigm of remote employees will be successful. Those that try to go back to “the old days” when all employees were expected to work on-site in the hospital building will not be able to compete for the best workers.

Supervisors, managers, medical directors and CEOs are mostly older with decades of comfort working in an office. Many of the employees working for them are younger and more adapted to working remotely. It is incumbent on those of use who are hiring employees to remember that it is about what the employee wants, not what we are accustomed to.

October 28, 2021

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital