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Automating Staff Scheduling


April 2015 - Vol. 12 No. 4 - Page #4

Superb planning and organizational skills are required to properly manage a hospital pharmacy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even with the execution of a sound management strategy, the seemingly straightforward task of staff scheduling can quickly become daunting, especially when taking into account competing employee time-off requests, pharmacy coverage needs, and staff skill sets. 

Memorial Hospital is a 405-bed, non-profit community hospital that is part of the Memorial Health Care System in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. Approximately 40 pharmacists and 40 pharmacy technicians serve Memorial Hospital’s all-adult patient population. Until 4 years ago, pharmacy management used a manual, paper-based method for staff scheduling. Employee time-off requests were submitted on paper, and the request was then transcribed onto a calendar, which was consulted during scheduling. Time-off requests were submitted within 90 days of the requested day(s) and were reviewed on a weekly basis. Not only was this method excessively time-consuming, but also the margin for error was significant and time-off requests were occasionally lost. Moreover, accounting for each employee’s shift preferences, matching adequate coverage with appropriate skill sets, and assigning holiday coverage in an impartial manner were significant challenges.

After scheduling staff via this manual method for many years, a particular event in 2010 tipped the scales; a time-off request was misplaced, and, consequently, the employee was scheduled, but did not come in to work. This event, and a history of similar occurrences, prompted us to evaluate various automated staff scheduling software programs that could simplify the process and prevent future miscommunications. 

Evaluating Automated Scheduling Options
Our primary considerations in evaluating automated staff scheduling software programs were ease of use and broad functionality. We wanted the capacity for staff to request vacation time electronically and the ability to save schedules that already had been created and import them into future time blocks, rather than starting anew with each scheduling cycle. In addition, we sought the ability to run reports that capture productivity information (eg, the ratio of hours worked versus time-off hours each week). Our chosen software allows us to view how many first, second, and third shifts an employee has worked and the area to which they were assigned—for example, the number of times they were assigned to cover the ICU versus the main pharmacy. The program also allows us to export shift details to third parties, when required. 

A team of pharmacists, including our IT pharmacist, evaluated three automated scheduling software solutions during a month-long free trial and then chose the one that fulfilled our requirements at the most economical price. 

Fortunately, the software implementation was straightforward. The pharmacists responsible for scheduling reviewed the user manual, worked in concert with IT to become familiar with the nuances of the program, and began using the software immediately. The software’s user-friendly nature and the vendor’s excellent customer support quickly bolstered staff confidence in the new scheduling process. 

How It Works
A designated lead pharmacist creates the schedules for the pharmacists, while the technician schedule is set by the lead pharmacy technician. Staff members can log onto the secure program from any computer or Internet-connected device (on or off campus) to view their schedules or request time off. They also can export their schedule into their online calendar. A master display indicates to the lead pharmacist or lead technician those staff members who have already requested specific days off. In addition, metrics indicate how many staff members can be off each day while still fulfilling staffing objectives. Time off during holidays is assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, but also takes into account previous years’ work assignments and staff seniority. When pharmacists request a holiday, they are able to view how many other pharmacists already have requested that day, the number of requests that have been approved, and the number pending. This information alerts the pharmacist that they may have to trade that day off with another pharmacist or alter their plans. 

Assigned in 12-week blocks, pharmacy management uses the software to schedule all three shifts in our 24/7 pharmacy. First-shift pharmacists alternate between working first and second shifts, whereas pharmacists who only work second shift always work the same schedule, four 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday. Third-shift pharmacists, as well as some of the second-shift pharmacists, work a 7-day-on, 7-day-off schedule. A pay differential is provided for third-shift pharmacists and technicians. 

The software allows pharmacists to specify their preferred shifts for the 12-week period, as well as indicate shifts when they will not be available; however, to date, we have found it unnecessary to use this function. In addition, the software specifies the area where the pharmacist will be working (eg, surgery, anticoagulation, ED, medication reconciliation, etc) (see Managers’ Schedules Screen Shot). Because we have pharmacists decentralized to five patient care floors, four ICUs, an outpatient infusion center, the outpatient pharmacy, the surgery pharmacy, and the ED, this capability is particularly useful. After the schedule has been completed, it is electronically verified for accuracy and potential conflicts, and then an email is sent to all pharmacists letting them know that the schedule is available for online viewing. Thereafter, the lead scheduling pharmacist and technician can view which staff members have seen and approved their schedules.

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Benefits of Automating Staff Scheduling 
Since implementing the software, we have realized significant time and cost savings, improved reporting capabilities, and mitigated the difficulties associated with this complex task (see SIDEBAR). As the software enabled us to import pre-populated scheduling templates, we created templates for each week of our 12-week scheduling block, which are imported at the time of scheduling. Therefore, the only required changes to the template are to address employee time-off requests. 

The time saved by using scheduling templates has allowed us to redeploy the lead pharmacist and lead technician to other tasks. Moreover, if need be, the software automatically can assign shifts to employees based on their time-off requests and will not assign shifts on days employees have requested off. Any remaining unscheduled shifts can be clicked and dragged into the schedule. Overall, using the software has reduced scheduling time from 90 to about 30 minutes per cycle. Despite the efficiencies gained, the cost of the program is inconsequential; we were able to purchase the software without going through the formal RFP process at Memorial Hospital.

Conclusion
In today’s complex pharmacy environment, reducing time-consuming administrative tasks, such as staff scheduling, can free up pharmacists for more clinically relevant pursuits, while simultaneously reducing costs. Investing in staff scheduling software is a simple way to standardize the scheduling process and avoid the frustrations of manual scheduling.


Karen W. Babb, PharmD, is the lead pharmacist and PGY1 residency program director at Memorial Health Care System in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a graduate of Mercer University School of Pharmacy and completed a pharmacy practice residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Karen’s professional interests include precepting students and residents. 

 


SIDEBAR
Benefits of Automated Staff Scheduling Software

Practical features to consider when evaluating automated staff scheduling software include:

  • A time-off summary report that tracks staff that take time off or call in sick at a higher rate than their peers 
  • Email capability to contact staff members with scheduling questions or to share important messages
  • An app that allows staff members to access their schedules on their smart phones 
  • The capacity to service multiple hospitals within the same health system on separate accounts, enabling individual staffing at each facility

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