Using Data and Collaboration to Improve the Healthcare Workforce - Digital Promise

Using Data and Collaboration to Improve the Healthcare Workforce

December 13, 2018 | By

Although employers from all industries face a number of obstacles when engaging in workforce development, they continue to demonstrate a commitment to train and upskill frontline workers. Despite a number of unique challenges faced by the healthcare industry as they develop talent pipelines, innovative Human Resources directors from hospitals around the country have started to focus on data and data sharing to overcome these barriers.

This summer, Digital Promise interviewed 15 individuals representing employers and workforce development boards to learn about the challenges and benefits to using data to evaluate and inform workforce development programs. In the interviews, many employers shared that they are rarely offered a seat at the table for the creation, development, and improvement of workforce development programs. In addition to feeling voiceless in the system, many shared that they have difficulty navigating the confusing web of funding mechanisms and providers to most effectively serve their frontline workers.

Additionally, few companies are able to learn about the impact of the training and educational programs available to their employees or use data to improve these offerings. While about 90 percent of companies who employ frontline workers offer educational and training opportunities, and U.S. companies spend more than $100 billion annually on internal training and development, key data on the effectiveness of these opportunities is unavailable.1 In fact, nearly 75 percent of companies who offer training programs don’t even know how many employees take advantage of the opportunities.2

What Barriers Do Healthcare Employers Face in Frontline Workforce Development?

Three leaders in their hospitals’ human resources (HR) departments shed light on the challenges healthcare employers face when trying to provide valuable training opportunities to frontline workers: inconsistent funding, antiquated training programs, and ad hoc partnerships.

In interviews, these leaders explained that the healthcare industry typically runs on a razor-thin margin, meaning that funding can be scarce, inconsistent, and unsustainable. Of course, this context makes it difficult for healthcare employers to develop long-term programs, much less to evaluate and iteratively improve programs to meet their evolving needs.

Without a clear vision for frontline worker training and educational programs, all three HR representatives had to inventory their hospitals to identify all of the training programs available. It became clear there was no alignment around training opportunities, which led to many redundancies. Some of the HR leaders noted that individual departments would identify and create trainings for a particular need without working across departments or with other hospitals.

There were also training programs that weren’t crucial; they seemed to exist simply because they had always existed. Without any oversight or evaluation of the programs, some training programs were available to employees even though departments could not name the essential skills employees would develop from participation in the programs. Moreover, departments often struggled to name specific competencies required to succeed in a particular role, often leaving HR departments to rely exclusively on job descriptions to identify the skills and educational attainment that potential or current employees would need.

Overall, we heard that while alignment between actual skill development needs and available training opportunities was lacking, there was considerable funding being funneled into programs that were not held accountable for the cost.

It's a really powerful lever to pull on to say, ‘Whether you believe it or not, the professional development for this part of the workforce is important.’ When you attach it to the patient experience here, it gets people's attention.
Human Resources Director
Healthcare Industry

Those interviewed also shared that partnerships were often ad hoc and aimless. One HR leader explained that their hospital claimed many “partnerships” with local adult educational organizations, but these affiliations lacked shared goals. Another HR leader hypothesized that relationships had been developed for a particular need in the past and only continued to exist because of the hospital’s lack of capacity to oversee workforce development.

Why Invest in Frontline Workers?

Considering the number of substantial obstacles they face, why should employers in the healthcare industry focus on workforce development? It comes down to patient experience.

The HR leaders explained that frontline workers are fundamental to any hospital’s success. Hospitals need to be cleaned thoroughly and efficiently, patients’ families have to be cared for, food needs to be available for patients and their families, and rooms need to be turned around quickly to see more patients. Frontline workers are essential to the healthcare industry, as they profoundly impact patients’ experiences and are critical to the hospital’s bottom line.

How Can Healthcare Employers Make More Strategic Investments in Their Frontline Workers?

Although the barriers seem daunting, the three HR leaders interviewed champion new strategies to focus training opportunities and evaluation to ensure a strong return on investment. The following recommendations are based on their lessons learned.

Conduct a Needs Assessment to Fuel Demand for Improved Workforce Development Programs

Identify pain points throughout the hospital or company to identify:

  • Skill deficiencies in the workforce
  • Roles that have the fastest turnover rates
  • Roles with the lowest patient satisfaction scores
  • Roles that need a greater talent pool

One HR leader provided an example of this needs assessment:

“Early on, I had the head of hospitality coming to me saying, ‘We’re in a crisis. One of our cooks left and it’s going to take us forever to fill that position.’ [I thought,] how could that be? We operate in [a location with] a hundred chefs who would be interested in stable hours, benefits. That [talent identification process] didn’t exist, so part of it was just assessing, ‘What are the hard to fill jobs within a hospital?’ We didn’t anticipate ‘chef’ would be near the top of the list.”

When conducting a needs assessment, involve every department to ensure all needs are heard and to increase a demand for more effective workforce development programs. Identify wasteful spending and position workforce development as a strategic, cost-saving decision. Communicate these primary pain points, along with current hospital spending on training programs, to hospital leadership to create a demand for change. This enables the hospital to target key, measurable goals and generates enthusiasm around the work.

Collaboratively Develop a Shared Vision for Needed Competencies

When the hospital leaders could define and agree on the areas of focus, the HR leaders we interviewed found that program development and evaluation was a lot more manageable. Convene department heads to discuss the identified pain points and rethink competencies.

Often, job descriptions do not speak to the actual competencies and skills required to succeed in a particular role. Work together to intentionally list the skills and competencies needed for each role in each department. When competencies are defined for particular roles, it is easier to identify competencies that affect multiple roles to create collaborative, strategic training programs that will benefit multiple departments across the hospital.

Maximize Efforts by Collaborating with the Community

Given the healthcare industry’s razor-thin funding margins, there is an inherent incentive to partner with local employers and adult education providers to optimize funding and maximize program efficacy. Join with similar employers in your community to identify shared needs and work together to develop training programs that meet your and your partners’ needs.

One HR leader described the consortium their hospital collaborates in: “Sometimes all the employers in the area go in on the programming and help in the identification, recruitment, retention and the development of the programs. Sometimes just one or two employers go in on the programming. It depends on how global the need is.”

Collaborate with providers, especially organizations who are seeking partnerships with employers, to offload some of the costs and work associated with developing, maintaining, and improving workforce training programs. For example, an HR leader explained:

“We really tried to build a dialogue with community-based organizations that are trying to connect people into our jobs. An organization that is having people apply to us can reach out to us and [ask for] feedback on [their] candidacy. So we can say, ‘John’s not qualified for this job and here’s why,’ or ‘John was brought in for an interview for this job, but he really didn’t interview well, and here are some of the questions he had trouble with.’ And [we’re] trying to have more of a dialogue with community-based organizations around what’s working and not working so they can make better referrals to us.”

Moreover, learn about and share best practices with your partners. These collaborations are a valuable avenue to share information about employers’ challenges. One HR leader said, “A lot of our folks are working at least two jobs; they’ll work here and then their next shift is somewhere across the city. And while we think, ‘Great, we’ll offer evening courses,’ they are not able to attend. [So] we’ve made a portion of the offering for the English as a second language on-site.”

By sharing and learning from these types of insights with partners, companies can improve access and impact on the programs they provide, thus increasing their return on investment.

Invest in, Use, and Share Data.

Continuously collect impact data to evaluate the return on investment. One HR leader shared that by using data to evaluate programs, hospitals can be more confident that they are making strategic investments in their workforce: “We were able to ensure that the money being used was actually returning on qualified professionals filling our needs, reducing our needs for recruitment, retention and increasing our engagement scores and closing those gaps between the date that the position was posted and the date the position was filled, and also having student positions in there in the meantime to buffer staffing needs.”

Companies are already spending the money; they're just not evaluating the benefits.
Human Resources Director
Healthcare Industry

Think creatively about outcomes metrics with key stakeholders. For example, one hospital shared that a lot of interesting data comes from the patient satisfaction score: “For all of those kinds of [frontline workers] who do interact with our patients, whether they’re bringing food in or whether they’re greeting them at the reception area, all aspects of that are asked about on patient satisfaction scores. … In some areas, we do really well, and in other areas, we have a high degree of variability. If we tighten those up and improve how we believe patient service or patient service excellence should be demonstrated in those roles, we believe we can have greater impact on patient satisfaction.”

It’s also critical to share data with the providers and partner companies involved in the program for continuous improvement. Those further along this data-sharing effort find case management tools are necessary to allow multiple users to securely enter various types of data into a single system. Additionally, a robust system should be able to aggregate and generate reports to enable meaningful evaluation of training programs, leading to improved programs and a greater return on investment.

Learn more about strategies to support frontline workers through Digital Promise’s Adult Learning initiative.

1Martin, K., Jamrog, J., Jamrog, J., Lykins, L., & Davis, E. (2016). Developing America’s Frontline Workers. Retrieved from
Association for Talent Development (2013). State of the Industry Report. Retrieved from
2Martin, K., Jamrog, J., Jamrog, J., Lykins, L., & Davis, E. (2016). Developing America’s Frontline Workers. Retrieved from
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