At Bergen New Bridge, finding support staff is just as challenging as finding more nurses, doctors

Like every other health care facility, Bergen New Bridge Medical Center certainly is facing a shortage of health care professionals, most notably doctors and nurses, due to the stress and strain of the seemingly never-going-to-end COVID-19 pandemic, CEO Deb Visconi said.

“We’re truly in a bit of a crisis mode throughout the industry with workforce shortages,” she said.

At Bergen New Bridge — the state’s largest facility, with 1,070 beds — the impact is deeper than in other places. It’s not just a lack of doctors, nurses and other essential health care workers that’s causing the problem, it’s a lack of people willing to do the massive number of supporting staff positions that keep the facility going, Visconi said.

“We talk about nurses and doctors all the time — and that obviously is a huge issue impacting how we care for patients — but this issue goes across the board,” she said. “We’re seeing security officers, foodservice workers, certified nursing assistants, mental health assistants, even our finance team — our registrars and our central schedulers — struggle to find help.”

Visconi said it’s a perfect storm of issues.

It’s not just the Great Resignation — a movement that has led many to reevaluate the impact of their job, especially among those close to a potential retirement age. Or even the fact that the highly transmittable Omicron variant has put more staff out sick.

There this: The replacement pool of workers has all but vanished, she said.

Out-of-state workers, who were so key in the initial waves of the pandemic, now are needed in their own areas.

Locals? Forget about it, Visconi said.

“It’s difficult to get even temporary or agency workers to come to the hospitals,” she said.

Visconi said the promise of increased wages — or a willingness to make more positions as remote as possible — has not solved the challenge.

Because of it, Bergen New Bridge increasingly is looking at a next-generation workforce for help, she said.

“We’re looking at partnering with colleges and our higher education organizations in the area to bring in new graduates into the field,” she said. “We’re working to have nursing students come experience the hospital so they hopefully will want to come back here eventually.

“We’re working with Bergen County Human Services with Project Search, where we bring a differently-abled individuals in groups of eight to 10 for internships. And, once they graduate the internship, they’re eligible to apply for jobs with us.

“So, it’s really looking beyond the traditional, you know, ad in newspapers and online. It’s really digging deeper into communities and partnerships.”

Visconi recently spoke with ROI-NJ about the challenges the pandemic has brought to Bergen New Bridge and the sector. Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Staff morale, burnout and replacement have emerged as key issues for the industry as we approach the second anniversary of the pandemic. But that’s not the only way health care has changed. How do you see health care moving forward — regardless of its relationship with the pandemic?

Deb Visconi: The state of health care and the provision of health care services, the way it is today, is probably going to stay with us into future generations. And that’s simply because we’ve learned that you don’t have to come inside the walls of a hospital to get care.

We now know that we can provide equally good care outside, whether it’s vaccines or therapeutics or testing. The use of technology has facilitated that. We, at Bergen New Bridge, and certainly my colleagues throughout the country have experienced telemedicine to the extent that we never had envisioned we would be using it. And it’s only going to increase.

ROI: How is that?

DV: We’re envisioning the use of artificial intelligence helping us not only provide care, but identifying those individuals who need care. It is very important for outreach workers and community health workers to penetrate those communities that are either resistant to health care, don’t have access to health care or are just more vulnerable.

We’ve learned about the inequities in the care that we do provide. Identifying those communities at risk and those individuals up front — through whatever means — will be very important moving forward.

So, I believe the future is now. We’re really in the middle of experiencing what the future will look like.

ROI: Talk about Bergen New Bridge. It’s the biggest health care facility in the state — and not because it has the most beds.

DV: We are what I call the unicorn of hospitals, because we truly have care from the beginning of the journey to the end. There’s obviously the emergency department, acute care medicine and intensive care. But we have the behavioral health continuum here on site, too, both inpatient and outpatient. We have substance abuse treatments and addiction services all under one roof. And we have a long-term care facility right on our campus.

The advantage to that is that we have it all under one roof, and individuals can come to one location and be able to traverse the continuum of care. We can provide truly integrated care for an individual, we can address their chronic conditions, we can address their mental health and behavioral health issues, as well as any addictions that they may or may not have.

And, of course, our clinical affiliation with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School allows us to have superb providers right on site here. So that’s what’s really good about being who we are. And, don’t forget, we’re a safety net hospital. So, we’re payer blind; we provide access to anyone that needs our care at the medical center.

ROI: Payer blind? This is Bergen County: one of the wealthiest areas in the country. Talk about how others may misperceive the county’s demographics?

DV: So, there certainly are some wealthy communities, for sure. But there’s also a significant amount of underserved communities. There are pockets of both communities and then there’s obviously everybody in the middle. So, I think that, although we are perceived as the wealthiest, there are large pockets of communities that are not. And everyone needs care at some point.

ROI: The challenge, going back to the top, is finding enough people to care for them.

DV: It takes a different type of person. People that are in health care are in it for different reasons, but we’re all in it for the mission and guided by our passion to do what’s right for the communities we serve. If you’re applying at a hospital, you know that’s what you want to do.

But, it’s been a wild ride. We’re approaching two years into this, and we’re still trying to innovate and be at the forefront of supporting our communities. We have to. This is what we do.