How Health Centers Focus on Retaining Their Workforce

Retaining health center staff was a challenge long before the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of staff retention efforts, health center leaders continue to look for ways to improve how they attract, train, recognize, and cultivate care team staff.  

One retention strategy employed by Swope Health aligns community needs with clinician areas of interest. For example, clinicians can work four days a week in primary care and devote their fifth day to working in an area of interest needed by the community, such as HIV care, Hepatitis C care, substance use disorder care, women and adolescent health, and pain management. This strategy is helpful to reducing clinician burnout and improve retention, especially for early career physicians who are still developing their areas of interest. 

“They get a chance to be champions for something and have input in how the health center provides care,” says Naiomi Jamal, MD, and Swope Health’s Chief Health Officer. Allowing clinicians to pursue their interests also enables them to stay engaged in primary care. “It is also a win-win for patients and the community who would otherwise be on long waitlists for receiving specialty care,” added Dr. Jamal. 

Swope Health also strives to create a culture where staff feel valued and heard. This empowers them to stay engaged in their work which can translate into retention. Swope Health’s CEO, Jeron Ravin, is a personal champion for this approach. Ways leadership is embedding this culture into the organization include: 

  • Fostering staff connection and open communication across the organization and with senior leadership such as inviting staff to participate in “This Week at Swope Health,” a weekly virtual all-staff meeting led by Ravin. 
  • Supporting staff passions to help staff grow vertically and laterally. (i.e., giving a primary care nurse the opportunity to transition into psychiatry because she has an interest for behavioral health) 
  • Encouraging care team members at all levels, to have a greater voice and share good ideas. If their team agrees, staff are encouraged to “just run with it.” 
  • Creation of a meditation room that is accessible to all staff for them to unwind, relax, and rejuvenate during the work day. 

Supporting Staff Through Training and Growth Opportunities

Training and investing in its workforce is a top priority for NEW Health in Washington State, and, together with education, are central elements of the program’s key components. “I challenge my teams to find the diamonds in the rough,” says Desiree Sweeney, NEW Health’s CEO. “Find the individuals who want to work, succeed, and improve our patients’ lives in our service area, and we will guide them and support them.”  

NEW Health employs these retention strategies:

Growth and advancement are key performance indicators for the leadership team 

  • Promotions are closely tracked and growth of staff closely monitored 

Training is a serious organizational commitment 

  • An internal training program supports skill development and staff advancement. 
  • All clinics close for two hours each month for training and staff meetings. Trainings are customized to specific roles and growth plans. 
  • All staff receive onboarding curriculum and 90-day and annual skill assessments.

Internal workforce development and strategic department organization charts empower employees in their job role and beyond 

  • Departments have been reorganized, and new roles have been created with succession plans for when positions become vacant.
  • Staff are cross-trained on different roles allowing for vacation coverage, thus promoting a work-life balance mindset.
  • Partnerships with schools, tuition assistance, and on-the-job training are offered to help staff attain skills and certifications in order to advance 
  • Visualizing career pathways for every position creates excitement for career growth and helps identify staff wanting to advance.

These retention strategies highlight some ways health centers can foster a work environment that meets staff personal and professional needs and makes them feel valued and appreciated.