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August 25, 2011
The “cone of uncertainty”


Carly Simon told us that “we can never know about the days to come…” and that is true of the distant future. But for short-term forecasting, increasingly sophisticated tools are showing up everywhere. With Hurricane Irene approaching the east coast of the U.S. today, utmost on my mind are the tracking and forecasting instruments of the National Weather Service. The ability to alert us with great accuracy to the approach and magnitude of a hurricane changes everything.

Even though the forecast is not done with pin-point accuracy, you are either clearly in or out of the forecast path of the hurricane. And for those in the “cone of uncertainty”, there is a direct impact to what you are currently doing and what you had planned to do.

Those bracing for the storm are shopping for food, batteries, flash lights, plywood, gas and other supplies they had not intended to shop for today – sadly, good for the economy. Others are physically moving inland in hope of avoiding the storm. While still others who had planned trips, whether for business or pleasure, into areas now in the “cone of uncertainty” are changing those plans. Anticipation of the storm is affecting those who choose to or have to stay, those with the ability and desire to leave and those who planned to arrive in the affected communities.

But that describes the affect on individuals and families, what about critical services like health care organizations. They can’t just fold up their tent and move on. How does the anticipation of a natural disaster impact hospitals especially? What is it that managers are doing today to prepare? While the engineers and maintenance staff are testing the generators and battening down the hatches, and food services, pharmacy, and materials management are beefing up the needed stores, what is the staffing office doing?

I seriously doubt that it is business as usual in the staffing office. In fact, I’m thinking that if you took an aerial picture of a hospital in the hurricanes potential path it would look like the satellite images of the hurricane itself – a swirling mass of controlled chaos with the staffing office at the center.

Now is the time when automation will be fully appreciated. With automated staff scheduling there will be no need to dig through piles of paper notes, schedules, contact information to manage through the crisis. You’ll have the ability to see clearly what the staff schedule looks like for the days of uncertainty ahead. Where are the open shifts? What new shift openings should be created and filled proactively?

 If the census is being artificially decreased by cancellation of elective procedures, how can staff be reassigned appropriately to support the sickest of the patients unable to be moved out?

How quickly can staff be called-in when the need arises? It is with automated systems like mobile scheduling supporting texting, email and voice capabilities that large numbers of staff can be mobilized quickly.

For those managers and staffing offices in the “cone of uncertainty”, you manage critical staffing issues everyday ensuring that the patient’s in your charge are appropriately cared for and for that you have the respect of all your colleagues. Today you have our respect and our prayers as you anticipate the storm.

Let us know what worked and didn’t work well as you weather the storm. Be safe!

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