System Lets Nurses Bid for Shifts

Developed at an Albany, N.Y., hospital, FirstStaff lets qualified nurses contract directly for individual shifts-circumventing costly placement agencies in the process.

Nurse managers traditionally have used agencies to find qualified nurses and other hourly staff to fill in on their wards. But with the nursing shortage of the past several years, temporary staffing needs and the costs associated with filling them have skyrocketed.

A hospital developed a site in 2000 to help nurse managers more effectively and inexpensively fill open shifts. St. Peters Health Care Services in Albany, N.Y., created a site where nurse managers post available shifts along with a range of hourly pay. Qualified nurses approved by the human resources department of the hospital have access to these shift listings and can bid on available hours.

Originally, this service was available for only a few areas of the hospital, but it has expanded over the past several years to include most of the nursing staff, as well as other hourly employees such as respiratory therapists.

St. Peters estimates that this approach has saved it about $1 million a year in temporary staffing agency costs. About 80 percent of shifts are filled by on-staff employees looking to pick up a few extra hours.

The system also helped the hospital reduce its nurse vacancy rate from 11 percent in 2000 to below 5 percent by 2003.

The nurses benefit as well, with an average hourly rate of $37, which is 40 percent to 50 percent higher than a typical hourly rate for a registered nurse at St. Peters, according to the hospital. Also, the nurses gained greater flexibility when picking up shifts by being able to easily assess all of the work available.

Earlier this year, St. Peters Hospital licensed development and marketing rights for the software to technology consultancy First Consulting Group. The software was launched by the company as FirstStaff in June.

Beyond the Catholic Health East system, of which St. Peters is a part, First Consulting has so far implemented the system at four hospitals, including Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh. Using FirstStaff, Mercy was able to reduce its use of agencies by half within the first four months.

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First Consulting is planning to release an upgraded version in November. It will be capable of linking directly with existing scheduling systems, so nurse managers will not have to re-enter information on available shifts. And the bidding options will be expanded, allowing staff to bid off a percentage of their base rate of pay. This will enable managers to look at cost and staff experience, said Lauren Sabet, the product manager for FirstStaff.

Sabet also noted that the upgrade is likely to include alerts built into the system so that no one can work more than a set number of hours within a 24-hour period. And it will allow for integration with Web servers on the back end of the system. Additionally, bidding staff will be able to create a personal page so they can better manage shifts that they are bidding on. Staff will be able to bid on multiple shifts simultaneously, but once a bid is accepted, the other bids will be canceled automatically.

Sabet said response has been largely positive from potential customers anxious to cut their agency costs and to "get their name associated as the hospital where nurses can pick up the shifts they like."

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