September 10, 2018
Special Series: Building Connecticut's Workforce Pipeline

Hartford HealthCare pursues multiple strategies to find, retain robust workforce pool

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Students participating in a nurse training program at Hartford HealthCare.
Photo | Contributed
(Left) Hartford HealthCare President Jeffrey Flaks. (Right) Dr. Peter Yu greets Flaks at an event celebrating his hire as physician-in-chief of the HHC Cancer Institute.
Photo | Contributed
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
A new crop of Hartford Hospital intensive care unit nurses at a training session in August.

Two of the region's largest employers -- Hartford HealthCare and Pratt & Whitney -- are in constant hiring mode as they seek to build up their diverse workforces with top talent. This is a behind-the-scenes look at their recruitment strategies.

Inside the steadily expanding Hartford HealthCare system, current and future workforce needs run the gamut from doctors and nurses to homecare workers, pharmacists and lots in between.

HHC, the second-largest healthcare system in the state behind Yale New Haven Health, employs nearly 13,000 people at its Hartford County hospitals and outpatient facilities, and another 6,000 around the rest of Connecticut.

HHC executives say there are always positions in high demand and short supply, and that the mix shifts over time. Right now, the highest demand is for specialty nurses trained to work in the operating room, technologists, phlebotomists, pharmacists and support services staff who manage revenue and supply chain.

"It's a very robust population," says Mary Morgan, vice president of talent acquisition for the system, which has six acute-care hospitals and a deal in the works to acquire St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, which would represent HHC's first formal entry into Fairfield County.

Click here to read how Pratt & Whitney is building its next-generation workforce

HHC has organized its infrastructure and staffpower around filling its workforce needs as best as possible.

Registered nurses, or RNs, are the largest single component of the system's workforce, and specialized RNs — whether they cater to the operating room, intensive care unit or emergency department — have become particularly hot commodities, Morgan said.

In the past, HHC preferred to start its new RNs in the basic medical-surgical unit, caring for an array of patients who are ill or recovering from surgery. But an increase in complex procedures, in addition to advancing technology, has forced hospital administrators to think of new ways to bring newly minted nursing graduates more quickly into complex, specialty areas.

One recent example: HHC launched a new operating room specialty nurse program in partnership with nursing schools at UConn, Central Connecticut State University and Three Rivers Community College, which allows for on-site training during a nursing student's senior year. The first cohort of 10 summer nursing fellows completed the program last month.

Angela Starkweather, associate dean for academic affairs at UConn's nursing school, said hospitals have increasingly been looking for ways to train up nurses more quickly. Such training helps nurses with their communication and coping skills.

"I think it speaks highly of Hartford Hospital," Starkweather said. "It means they are invested in their new graduates and want them to stay."

HHC officials are mulling whether to form or scale similar programs for ICU and ER specialty nurses.

"It's a significant investment of our time and resources and our clinical staff," Morgan said. "It's been very rewarding, but it takes time."

She says there's a new wave of demand for nurses in Connecticut and elsewhere, the largest since the 1990s and early 2000s.

Indeed, the state Department of Labor projects that Connecticut healthcare employers will need to hire about 2,100 nurses a year through 2026. At an annual average salary of nearly $81,000, RNs rank among the best compensated, most in-demand positions in the state.

"Many of the programs in Connecticut get far more applicants, even applicants with good grades" than they can accommodate, Morgan said.

Healthcare officials say part of the reason for that is a lack of qualified nursing instructors, many of whom may be able to draw better salaries in healthcare management positions than at nursing schools.

"I think that in many cases, if you do get to a leadership position, it's hard to make the move back to the education sector," Morgan said.

Starkweather agrees with that assessment. She said the demand is there, but the faculty isn't.

"We're probably turning away six times the number we accept," she said of her nursing program's application volume.

Besides designing new training programs, HHC has used other tactics to recruit nurses.

When it was constructing its $150 million Bone & Joint Institute in 2015 and 2016, Hartford Hospital tapped its marketing team to craft advertisements that ran on the radio and music streaming service Pandora. They were targeted at attracting specialty nurses and surgical technologists — the types of skilled positions you might not typically hear advertised on mass consumer platforms.

"It was really part of a multi-pronged effort — a comprehensive campaign to open the [Bone & Joint Institute] well-staffed and on time," said Rebecca Stewart, director of the Hartford HealthCare News Service.

Prestige MDs

Physician recruitment has also been a key focus in recent years, says Jeff Flaks, HHC's president and chief operating officer.

More specifically, the system has sought to recruit physicians with strong reputations and well-situated appointments at other institutions. Call them prestige hires.

"We've recruited at this point 10 or more national and international physician leaders, who have led prestigious places across the country where they were well-situated," Flaks said.

They may not be household names, but Flaks says patients still take notice.

"Patients want people with experience or who've led discovery or achieved results," he said. "Unquestionably, when you bring in the right leaders, the programs have more capability to grow and expand."

Such recruits, he says, "immediately up the chances of more recruitment, more industry partnerships, more research and leading capabilities."

So what makes docs pick up stakes and move to Connecticut? Does HHC dangle extra big salaries?

Not so, says Flaks. The health system's salaries are "largely comparable" to peer systems. Rather, he said, HHC offers its top docs an environment where they can be innovative and pursue new care models.

Among the 10 recruits Flaks mentioned is Dr. Peter Paul Yu, named two years ago as physician-in-chief of the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute, which coordinates HHC's cancer research partnership with Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) in New York.

Yu had been cancer research director at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in California since 2008, and advised former Vice President Joe Biden on his cancer research funding "Moonshot" initiative. Yu was just coming off a leadership stint with the high-profile American Society of Clinical Oncology when MSK — where Yu was a researcher about 30 years prior — came knocking on HHC's behalf.

MSK and HHC were forging ahead on their 2014 cancer research alliance, and needed a physician leader. Yu said he was at a turning point in his career, which had brought him to the West Coast for several decades. He saw the MSK alliance as a promising new model for cancer research and patient care, and came to see HHC as a system determined to integrate its growing holdings with the aim of improving health care.

"What I saw in Hartford was pretty unique," Yu said.

During employment talks, he recalls asking a former colleague for advice about what, if any, demands he might want to make.

With the MSK alliance still fairly new, he decided he wasn't sure what he might need. He said he accepted the job offer, telling Flaks and HHC CEO Elliot Joseph that he was going to bring them potential deals with strategic partners, and insisted they evaluate them "seriously, carefully, and nimbly."

Attitude sometimes trumps all

While Hartford HealthCare's workforce needs are real and have forced pivots and innovations, don't mistake it for a beggars-can't-be-choosers situation.

Indeed, HHC officials appear to perceive plenty of leverage in their recruiting strategies.

Gerry Lupacchino, the system's vice president of experience, engagement and organizational development, offers a recent anecdote to illustrate.

Back in the spring, HHC was interviewing a job applicant for what Lupacchino called a "clinical leader" position.

"He came highly recommended and had all the credentials we wanted," Lupacchino recalled.

Yet, HHC ended up taking a pass. It came down to the applicant's attitude and demeanor in the interview.

" 'Cynical' is the word," Lupacchino said. "That sort of war-torn, 'I've seen it all stuff.' "

The clinician didn't react positively when managers told him HHC had pledged to its board of directors that it will strive to achieve the highest patient satisfaction ratings of any Northeast hospital by 2023, as measured by patient surveys conducted by Press Ganey Associates (think of them as a sort of J.D. Power for health care).

HHC executives are known to use one phrase often: They want the system to be "the most trusted for personalized, coordinated care." To some, it could sound like a buzz phrase, but HHC managers insist it's not.

"We have a strong belief about what it is we are building here," Lupacchino said. "If you don't at your core believe that what we're saying we're going to do is possible, and you come in with a certain jaded point of view," you may be shown the door.

That recruiting filter applies to any potential recruit HHC interviews, Lupacchino says, but especially those in more senior roles.

Flaks says the approach is driven by a "culture-first" mantra.

"We will not bring people into this organization, even if they are world renown or if they have significant research support or tremendous name recognition, if they're inconsistent with our values, if they're not bought in to our leadership behavior we all aspire to," Flaks said. "We live to our values."

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