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How the healthcare industry is ramping for its biggest season ever

Often when we think of holiday ramping, the retail industry comes to mind. Each year around this time, stores hire more clerks, suppliers hire more warehouse employees and parcel delivery companies hire more drivers. But retail isn't the only industry with significant and well-defined seasonal peaks and valleys.

The healthcare industry is also seeing its own surges and declines in demand. This year, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy says demand for the flu vaccine is expected to increase 13% from last year, and 27% from the 2017–18 flu season, as Americans seek ways of protecting themselves from a potential "twindemic."

“Flu season is a critical moment in time in the healthcare industry. This year is one of the most important — if not the most important — in our generation," Christopher Savarese, director of operations for Rite Aid, told Stat News.

At the same time, the U.S. alone sees around a million COVID tests per day, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Open enrollment for health insurance is simultaneously in full swing for many millions more.

This confluence of factors means seasonal workforce management is especially difficult, and as a result, it's pushing healthcare and insurance companies to hire and scale smartly in 2020.

Companies tackling massive scaling

From drug stores to health insurers, companies along the healthcare spectrum are in the midst of an unprecedented year for flu shots. Drugmaker AstraZeneca Plc has increased production of doses of its FluMist vaccine in the U.S. by over 25% more than previously planned. And across the board, vaccine makers are delivering significantly more doses than typical years.

Meanwhile, drugstore chains are scrambling to administer millions more flu vaccine doses than in previous years. Rite Aid purchased 40% more, while Walgreens anticipates a 30% to 50% jump in customers who will want flu shots or other immunizations.

Such increases in demand require ramped up location-based staffing. In October, CVS announced immediate plans to hire 15,000 temporary workers to handle flu shots and COVID tests. That's in addition to the 76,000 people it has hired since March 2020.

Hiring in-store seasonal workers is a challenge any day of the week given the temporary nature of the role, but during a pandemic it is exceedingly difficult. Although businesses have processes and mechanisms in place to hire in-store personnel, what's unchartered territory is the need to hire employees to work-from-home, and hiring individuals virtually that employers may not have the opportunity to meet in person.

Some companies are ramping remote workers while simultaneously preparing for the post-pandemic future. Health insurer Humana is one such company. They hired 200 work-from-home team members for the open enrollment season within a 50-mile radius of a key location in San Antonio, Texas with plans to offer the seasonal workers full-time employment beyond the temporary term.

Others are thinking nationally. As this article in Healthcare Finance notes, better access to qualified remote candidates for hospital and clinic support staff is especially helpful for health insurers that serve Medicare, Medicaid and private commercial insurance. That's because they are no longer required to look in their immediate communities for workers, and can hire people across the country without having to relocate them.

This year's open enrollment season will be busier than ever

For healthcare and insurance companies, open enrollment promises to be busier and more complicated this year. With so many out of work, people looking at making adjustments to open enrollment will no doubt have more questions of FSAs, life insurance and wellness programs that they might normally have just selected on autopilot in pre-COVID times.

Automation is one way to increase efficiency, since open enrollment usually includes forms and paperwork for millions of enrollees. Automation can manage certain elements of enrollment that can reduce overall labor needs and costs. But in a year like no other, with collective anxiety at an all-time high, customer service needs are more complex and sensitive. The patient experience (PX) and omnichannel customer experience (CX) are even more important now as people try to keep themselves healthy during the holiday season and beyond.

Since they may be skipping elective medical procedures, many workers with employer-sponsored benefits are expected to ask more questions across channels like social media and chat as they seek to shore up their long-term care.

As employees switch to telehealth, and as they address mental and physical health issues they've deferred since the start of the pandemic, insurance companies can expect a sustained uptick in demand for patient support in 2021. That may include answering questions about coverage, handling claim disputes and helping customers navigate their healthcare during a pandemic.

The importance of workforce management

Remote recruiting and hiring can also help companies scale rapidly. Solutions like TELUS International's Work Anywhere remote recruiting and training processes can help ensure companies have access to a wider pool of candidates as they are not limited to locality in the candidate search. Moreover, the solution ensures new hires have access to quality training and ongoing coaching despite not being in a delivery center.

While many industries like retail quickly transitioned to digital and e-commerce channels and much of open enrollment processing can be done virtually, operating remotely is not always possible in healthcare. For those that do need to hire in-person talent, maintaining CDC guidelines is important for the safety of individuals and broader organizations.

Hiring and onboarding takes up to six weeks in many cases, so the time to hire new seasonal workers has already passed. That's where smart workforce management strategies can make a big impact in helping businesses anticipate and meet staffing requirements. Companies currently experiencing a crunch can consider transitioning existing team members to high-priority roles to ease the ramping burden.

Delivering quality care

This year, demand for support is high across all facets of the healthcare continuum, from pharmacies to medical offices to insurance companies, and many companies are still scrambling to ramp their frontline teams. Those that engage their frontline employees to deliver great PX and CX stand to benefit their companies' top and bottom lines in a critical season when they need it most.

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