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Caring for the frontline is front of mind for Partners HealthCare


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Posted In: Case Studies, CFA News

Dec • 11 • 2015

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of ASHHRA HR Pulse.

Judith Crawford emigrated from Jamaica to the United States in 2006, seeking a better life and educational and career opportunities so she could help support her family. As a certified nursing assistant at Spaulding Hospital North Shore, she was given a unique opportunity in 2013 when her employer gave frontline employees like her the opportunity to earn an accredited and cost effective college degree. For just $500 a year, Judith was able to pursue an associate’s degree through College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, one example of an educational program that partners with employers nationwide to offer fully-accredited, competency-based college degrees for working adults.

“As a single parent with a mortgage and other necessary expenses, I couldn’t see any way for me to obtain my associate’s degree without causing a tremendous financial burden,” said Crawford. “When I heard about the College for America program, I knew that it was an ideal opportunity for me.” She has since graduated from the associate’s program and was promoted to a Patient Service Representative as a result. She is now pursuing her bachelor’s degree through the college in healthcare management.

Crawford’s story is the result of the work of many at Partners HealthCare, including MJ Ryan—the Director of Workforce Development, Human Resources—and her team and colleagues from the Partners system and its member institutions. Their efforts reflect Partners’ dedication to creating economic opportunity for frontline workers and a high quality diverse workforce. A partnership with College for America (CfA) is one of many initiatives they’ve launched to attract, retain, and develop high-potential employees.

A culture where every employee matters

Partners HealthCare is a nationally recognized healthcare system and the largest private employer in Massachusetts with more than 65,000 employees.  Partners HealthCare is committed to advancing patient care, research, and education for the diverse communities it serves, and the organizational culture recognizes the range of talented professionals required to advance the organization’s mission and health care’s toughest challenges.  Faced with the challenges of developing a workforce that has the skills and flexibility necessary to meet the continually changing demands of high-quality healthcare delivery, Ryan led the effort to offer employees higher education designed for working adults and teamed up with CfA to deliver online, competency-based, project-based education that costs an individual only $2,500 a year. Since the hospital system offers annual tuition reimbursement at an average of $2,000 annually for full-time employees, this provides employees with an opportunity to earn their degree for only $500 per year.

“We’re deeply committed to educating our workforce in order to ensure that we continue to deliver the highest level of care to our patients and their families, while offering our employees the opportunity to advance in their careers,” said Ryan of their decision to offer higher education opportunities. “Our partnership with CfA offers accessible, affordable and attainable degree programs to our employees and also affords us the opportunity to inform curriculum, which we hope will deliver a workforce with the skills that are needed now and into the future as new health care delivery models continue to evolve.”

In “Nonclinical & Frontline Healthcare Roles Continue to Rise,” a workforce strategy report from CfA, the healthcare industry makes up the largest segment of the United States’ economy, projecting 22,053,900 workers in 2020. Nonclinical, community, social service, and support positions comprise 42 percent of the healthcare workforce.  With the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, today’s community health centers, long-term care facilities, and medical practices need their nonclinical healthcare workers to work as part of a high-functioning medical team, and many health care employers are considering new ways to re-tool their workforce to meet these demands.

Making higher education more accessible to working adults

Between the low cost and flexibility of the programs, Partners HealthCare is offering thousands of nondegreed frontline workers the opportunity to pursue an associate’s or bachelor’s degree when they would not be able to afford traditional college tuition rates or accommodate classroom-based education models.

The associate’s degree offered to Partners’ employees takes most students 2.5 years to complete. Because the program is self-directed, students can finish their degrees in less time if they choose, which means they pay less. Students earn their degrees by submitting workplace-applicable projects and mastering competencies, such as understanding how to read charts and graphs and interpreting medical terminology.

Employees working part time (at least 20 hours per week) or full time are eligible to enroll in the college and for tuition assistance. However, some employees must improve their English and computer skills to make the most of the programs.

Fortunately, Partners HealthCare has had a long-term view when it comes to workforce development.  Ryan and her team had already developed a resource to meet these challenges, having previously worked with online learning expert Ryan Busch to create the Partners Online College Prep Program (OCPP): a web-based resource that readies employees for online learning. More than 700 Partners employees have already participated in the OCPP, which serves as the primary gateway for enrollment. By participating in the OCPP, students are well prepared to thrive in the programs and get the most out of their higher education experience while developing valuable new knowledge and competencies that they can apply on the job.

A culture focusing on career advancement and workforce preparedness

Partners HealthCare has also worked with CfA to advise and review healthcare-specific curriculum development to support the growth of the health care workforce in the geographic region. In 2014, a certificate program was developed for nonclinical frontline healthcare workers that is broadly applicable across the industry using funds from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Health Care Workforce Transformation Fund grant program, administered by Commonwealth Corporation. Building on the college’s research on projected healthcare workforce needs and the design of healthcare-related programs, the curriculum development team worked with Partners HealthCare’s workforce staff, human resources professionals, and more than 50 clinical managers and practitioners from  Community Health Centers and other Ambulatory practices operated by Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Together, they identified the common competencies necessary for nonclinical staff to acquire the skills needed for care transformation. The program development work successfully combined competency development and project design experience with the on-the-ground expertise of Partners’ managers and supervisors. The planning grant supported conducting focus groups, creating goals, developing competencies, and identifying content and context for project design and learning resources.

Additionally, Partners HealthCare was awarded a two-year training grant to put employees through the program. Partners’ managers and supervisors who are affiliated with the community health center and participated in the grant have been encouraging frontline employees to pursue the certificate program. So far, more than 40 frontline workers—roughly half in administrative or clerical positions—enrolled in a pilot program for the certificate in 2014.

As for associate’s graduate Crawford, she says, “These programs have greatly impacted my life. I am grateful that the organization extended these opportunities to me and gave me such a financial blessing. By earning my associate’s degree, I have made my family very proud. My biggest cheerleader is my seven-year old daughter Briana who said, ‘Yea Mom! You’ve made it!’”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of ASHHRA HR Pulse.