Inside the COVID-19 Pandemic in Alaska & Healthcare Recruiting in Remote Facilities

An interview with Jen Hoskins of Foundation Health Partners

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The state of Alaska is known for its majestic national forests and wildlife refugees. As the largest state in the US by far, Alaska is at the bottom of the list when it comes to population — according to a census in 2019, still under a million people.

As you may suspect, this set the scene for a very different kind of pandemic experience for Jen Hoskins, the Talent Acquisition and Development Director for Foundation Health Partners.

Jen talked to us recently about her COVID experience, plus the shortage of local nurse graduates and the solution that brought major relief.

She spoke in an interview with Health Carousel, which provides world-class healthcare staffing and workforce solutions designed to improve lives and make healthcare work better.


COVID, for us, I think has been a little bit different than the rest of the country. So, we're in the interior of Alaska. And so when COVID first became a thing, and March. Yeah, it was, like everyone kind of froze. And then we literally had a blizzard, which it's like, it's really easy to isolate when you have, like, an immediate blizzard. But everyone just had this immediate, like, panic. Because we weren't sure, and there were some denial, not in our organization, but in the community about, well, ‘What's happening in New York is nothing like what's happening in Alaska. And if it was in reverse, if this was happening in Alaska, surely in New York, they would not be as interested in our circumstances.’

But we didn't go into lockdown right away. But there was a time where you know, everyone just was really concerned. When is it going to get here? And then of course, we're organization, being we're the only hospital in town that's not military, so we are one hospital for hundreds of miles. And so we not only serve the community here in Fairbanks, but we serve the interior of Alaska. So people who live in smaller communities and villages in the interior also rely on our hospital for care.

We were just kind of waiting for the first case to happen. And, like, I mean, I even went on the trip down to Anchorage with my friend and our kids. And we're like, we went to Chucky Cheese. I felt like, ‘’Is this a good idea?’ but we didn't have any cases yet. So we're like, this is probably the last hurrah before things get bad here. And so we, you know, came back and then on that drive home, that's when I heard that the first COVID patient or COVID-positive person was in Alaska. And so now it's, now it's getting real, it's starting. That was down in Anchorage. And then in Fairbanks, it wasn't long after until we had the first patient.

For a long time, it was like we only had one or two people with COVID and patient, and they weren't necessarily they weren't necessarily dying. So sometimes it's, we have a COVID-positive mother who's going to give birth. So but then there was a time where that really jumped up to like 11 … We have 160 beds, but we don't really use all this. So it's, that's a pretty high census for us for COVID patients. But we have not been blown out like other hospitals yet.

And so we just had this ultimate creep of this happening, and initially when -- so if we could just rewind back to when COVID first hit. It was very ghost town. And then very quiet in the hospital, because we had to stop all non-elective ... surgeries, procedures. All of our outpatient appointments got cancelled.

So it was like, What do we do? And for us on, on the staffing end, it was Hey, we need in case this explodes. So we weren't sure how fast and it's been this very slow creep. But back then we thought it was going to be this explosion, sort of how it was in New York. And in Fairbanks, we all go to the same three grocery stores … There's one Barnes and Noble. So we're all going to the same places. So when you think about, we're very naturally socially isolated, but we're all going to the same stores and touching the same stuff. So I thought that probably could have moved a lot faster than it did,


Even before COVID,  Foundation Health Partners had a challenge with filling its staff positions. There is a great local new grad program, but it only graduates 16 new nurses a year. That’s about 10% of what the facility needs.


So even before COVID, we had a pretty exorbitant external contract labor spend.  So there's the financial aspect of relying on travelers to provide health care. So think of our position again, in the interior of Alaska, where we are providing more services that I think people would expect an organization of our size to be providing. And so every time we bring on a new service line, our goal is really to bring the most that we can to the people in the interior, so they don't have to travel out.

Every time we bring on a new service line, or grow a service line. For any type of surgery, we're you know, opening up a new outpatient clinic, there is a staffing need that comes on the back of that, and that elephant that sits on my chest every day. But without the foreign national nurses coming, what our world typically looks like, is a never-ending cycle of travelers.

So we have some nurses who maybe don't want to work full time after a while. They want to drop the part time or per diem, but we're still moving full steam ahead. And so we have this like sort of mountain every year these positions we have to fill.

So we sought out this option to bring in foreign national nurses because we had heard from some other leaders who had joined our organization that said, we can't believe you guys are not doing this and I had seen so many advertisement on my Facebook feed. It was, it's like, you sense that this was stressful for me.


With slimmer local recruitment possibilities, Jen turned to Health Carousel to bring in international nurses.


There's some work that goes into that. And so it's easy to say no, not one more thing. We're not doing one more thing.

What we really like about Health Carousel actually, I love it, is Miriam. She's our client relationship manager. And I'll tell you, Miriam, is, first of all nice and patient with me, because we do have a million things going on.

But she has made it palatable, all the little pieces that have to go into this. She just is a real partner. And she's caring and funny, and very diligent, and I need someone like that to partner with me or else it's not gonna work. When we first started to go through the selection process, we're like, okay, we're gonna start small, because we don't want to, we don't want to bite off more than we can chew. And pretty soon we had selected 25.

And I was, so it was just relieved because nursing leaders, I think, could be a tough group to satisfy just because they're by nature skeptical, which I love. It's, you know, can be challenged, but I get that they're ultimately, they're thinking about their team and the patient. And how is this going to work? And so they were really open minded, and I never expected them to be that open minded. And they're like, yeah, let's try it. And so they were flexible. They got involved in the interviews.

And you know, pretty soon, like I said, 25 nurses were selected. And I think there was some sticker shock, not on the price, because I think the, the price was very much affordable compared to what we already spend an external contract labor.

And the problem really, with extra, no contract labor that comes on typical 13- week assignments isn't just the price tag. It's really, it's so frustrating to have a new person on your team every 13 weeks. And so the consistency that we're achieving over 36 months, was the most appealing.

The other thing that really makes me happy about our ability to take in I think a high volume -- maybe at least for us it feels like I have volume of these nurses -- is that we are very used to orienting people to our location. Because we reload. We relocate so many people every year. And so we're very used to having outsiders come in and like okay, we're going to help you get the lay of the land. So the nurses that are already here, some of them are single. So we're like, you know, we're going to introduce you to people. Some of them are on Tinder.

Very much like, they're a part of our team. I think it's just a really good fit.

At any given time, all the things that we thought were super important to work on, we had just finalized our goals for 2020. And okay, this is, these are thethings that we're going to do in our department. And they're important to us, they were very important. And at that time, we thought mission critical. And then overnight, it was like scrap that we have to be all in on this. And I'm going to need for you to do that with me. And my team was really, I was so impressed. They were just all hands on deck. And I had people coming in Saturdays, and we had someone who is not on our team, but in other areas that we're an organization that were immunocompromised. So it was like, Hey, I know you were onboarding people at one time. I need for you to do that and sit at this person's desk who can't come in and just and so they weren't, they just exercise this ultimate flexibility. And, that I felt like, was so awesome, like, just their willingness to jump in.

This episode of The Workforce Solution has been an interview with Jen Hoskins from Foundation Health Partners.

The Workforce Solution is a storytelling series brought to you by Health Carousel,  a world-class healthcare staffing and workforce solutions company designed to improve lives and make healthcare work better.