While COVID-19 was responsible for the cancellation of last year’s Health Care Outlook, the Feb. 23 event’s participants struck a chord of optimism as the pandemic’s presence in the Ozarks nears the year mark.
Mercy Hospital Springfield President and Chief Operating Officer Brent Hubbard spoke at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s livestreamed event about the downward trend of COVID-19 hospitalizations and positive cases, which he expects to continue at least through the summer. Hubbard was part of a panel discussion, moderated by chamber President Matt Morrow, along with guests Amy DeMelo, president of Cox College, and Jill Williams, vice president of workforce initiatives with the Missouri Hospital Association.
As of Feb. 24, 62 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Springfield at Mercy or CoxHealth facilities, according to Springfield-Greene County Health Department data. That’s down 45% from 113 COVID-19 local hospitalizations on Feb. 1.
“Over the next few months, it’s encouraging. We’re cautiously optimistic of what’s to come with the pandemic,” Hubbard said, noting the few COVID-19 variants circulating globally could slightly impact hospitalizations in the coming months. “What is imperative is we continue to get vaccinations in arms. If we continue to do that across southwest Missouri, we will keep COVID at bay.”
Hubbard said COVID will probably become an endemic virus handled similarly to the seasonal flu today.
The panelists discussed ongoing changes in the health care industry, such as improving medical care access for patients, adopting and using technology in virtual medicine, and meeting workforce demands.
“Since the pandemic, we’ve probably compressed five years of change into one year,” Hubbard said, adding 13% of Mercy’s overall physician visits for patients are now virtual. “That’s the benefit of the pandemic. If there’s anything good that has come out of it, it’s the rate of change that needed to happen in health care.”
Both DeMelo and Williams spoke of the workforce landscape for nurses, a profession highly in demand, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Registered nursing jobs are expected to reach 3.3 million in 2029, a projected 7% increase from the 3 million RNs in 2019.
Williams said nurses nearing retirement age and those leaving the profession for higher pay or less stress are contributing concerns of the nursing shortage.
Cox College has been making investments in recent years to draw more people to nursing careers. The college wrapped up $6.6 million in renovations at Cox North Hospital last year and was approved in December for a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to expand its simulation lab. The Missouri State Board of Nursing approved the college’s request in 2019 to increase capacity to 400 students from 250.
DeMelo said the college’s night and weekend program for undergraduate nursing has 95 students enrolled. It began with five students in 2018.
“It is our fastest-growing program at Cox College. It is because it works around the families who say, ‘Yes, I want to be a nurse, but I can’t quit my day job, or I can’t not take care of my children.’”
Talent recruitment for hospitals was a challenge before the pandemic, Williams said.
“COVID-19 has only exacerbated those shortages and made them even greater,” she said. “We’re looking for new roles. Hospitals are hiring door greeters and temperature checkers, vaccinators, telehealth workers.”
Williams said introducing youth to health care careers and offering paid training and apprenticeship opportunities are important tools for job recruiters. Health care organizations can no longer wait for job candidates to walk through the door, she said.
Celeste Cramer, CoxHealth’s system director of recruitment and retention, agreed, adding the health care system participates in educational programs such as Medical Explorers, which offers job shadowing, and Greater Ozarks Centers for Advanced Professional Studies.
“The majority of our recruitment efforts start at the high school level,” she said. “We’re heavily involved in GO CAPS, which is a chance for juniors and seniors at area high schools to get real-life experience in health care facilities.”
CoxHealth hires around 250 nursing college graduates each year and has over 200 positions open for bedside nurses, Cramer said, noting she sees no end in sight for the nursing shortage. However, she said Cox College’s nursing program expansion should have a big impact.
“The more nurses we can get in southwest Missouri, the more we can grow talent locally, the better it is for the entire community,” she said.
Building health care
Aside from the panel discussion, chamber officials presented several videos covering topics such as mental health and workforce training. David Atkisson, Springfield office leader with J.E. Dunn Construction Group Inc., noted in one of the videos 20% of the Kansas City-based company’s annual revenue is tied to health care projects. He said eight of those jobs were in Springfield last year, including construction of the COVID-19 unit at Cox South Hospital.
After viewing the chamber event, DeWitt & Associates Inc. President GR Stovall noted health care’s embrace of change is similar to what the construction industry has been doing amid the pandemic.
“I expect us to also maintain a steeper trajectory of innovation – not just in building methods, but in the ways we serve our clients with a focus on their experience with the design and construction process,” he said via email.
Stovall said health care projects represent a “significant niche” for DeWitt, but he declined to disclose the number of projects or percentage of its overall business. He said the company currently is working on Phase II of a renovation for Sunshine Eye Clinic.
Year-over-year revenue for the company was flat in 2020, he said, declining to disclose figures. DeWitt’s local billings for 2019 were $48 million, according to SBJ list research.
Chamber spokesperson Rachael Mhire said the Health Care Outlook is generally held in June, but the 2020 event was canceled due to pandemic-related concerns. It changed spots on the calendar this year to accommodate a planned June meeting for the Springfield Business Development Corp., the chamber’s economic development subsidiary.
Next up in the chamber’s annual Outlook series is the 2021 Economic Outlook, scheduled Aug. 18 at DoubleTree by Hilton.
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