New Dashboard Helps Fill Medical Workforce Gaps In VA Areas Hard-Hit By COVID-19

Audrey Breen

The long-term partnership between UVA’s Nudge4 Solutions Lab and the Virginia Community College System allowed researchers to pivot their work to create a real-time dashboard identifying the available health care labor supply in different regions of Virginia.

As cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, continue to rise across the commonwealth of Virginia, so does the need for individuals working on the front-line in healthcare. From respiratory therapists and nurse assistants to elderly care workers, graduates from the Virginia Community College System could help fill those roles.

A new online dashboard built by researchers and students in the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development and the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy identifies the number of recent graduates of the Virginia Community College System who completed health care programs but are not currently working in health care. It also identifies health care students who could complete their degrees within one semester.

“Combined, these two groups could potentially help fill critical workforce needs in the face of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Ben Castleman, Newton and Rita Meyers Associate Professor in the Economics of Education and director of the Nudge4 Solutions Lab, the lab responsible for building the dashboard.

Castleman and others in the Nudge4 lab have been working in partnership with the Virginia Community College System for several years and, as this crisis unfolded, reached out to see where they could bring their expertise to help.

“In our conversations with the VCCS leadership, we learned that state leaders were seeking information about recent health care graduates in an effort to plan for increased needs within the health care sector,” Castleman said. “We worked with VCCS data to build a system that allowed policymakers to visualize potential health workforce supply alongside real-time COVID-19 outbreak data.”

According to Castleman, the hope is that policymakers can then identify ways to leverage this available workforce to support the increasing needs created by the pandemic.

“As the needs increase, Virginia policymakers can work with VCCS to communicate directly to students or graduates with information about potential employment,” Castleman said.

Users of the dashboard can search within all health care programs or within one or more of 31 specific programs, such as radiography, respiratory therapy or physical therapy. Castleman said the tool was designed to be accessible and useful to a variety of audiences.

“In addition to state policy makers, our hope is that healthcare systems, like the UVA Medical Center, could see where health care labor supply is available and work with the VCCS to recruit trained professionals to fill critical needs they have,” he said.

The database was built by Kelli Bird, research faculty at the Curry School, and the dashboard was created by Brian Kim, a doctoral student at the Curry School who earned his master’s degree at the Batten School.

“COVID-19 is affecting so many people in so many different ways right now,” Kim said. “As we think about policy responses to issues like healthcare staffing shortages, we really need to empower state leaders with the tools they need to make informed policy decisions.

“We hope that with close collaboration between policymakers, healthcare providers, and our VCCS partners, we can ensure that Virginia health care facilities have the staffing they need to care for Commonwealth residents affected by COVID.”

For Kim, the project brought together almost all of the skills he has been building across disciplines since starting at UVA.

“My time with Curry has helped me build the analytical skillset I needed to understand these data in the specific community college context here in Virginia, while my time at Batten has helped me develop a keener awareness of how policymakers make decisions during crises like this,” Kim said. “Importantly, my experience at Batten also taught me to keep in close touch with those directly affected by the issues before trying to get involved.”

Kim also took several courses in UVA’s new School of Data Sciences, where he says he was reminded to question his understanding of the data and to be thoughtful about how to present data in a way that is useful to less technical audiences.

Though the dashboard was just recently launched, state leaders have already received inquiries from other states about the dashboard and how to potentially replicate it.

“Going forward, we hope to pull in additional measures of health care worker demand, and will likely expand to other sectors, like logistics, that may see increased need in light of the COVID crisis,” Castleman said.