Danville VA among hundreds facing challenges in filling ranks

Danville VA among hundreds facing challenges in filling ranks

DANVILLE — As chief of the medical staff at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System in Danville, Dr. Dean Shoucair has no shortage of responsibility, but he still makes time on a daily basis to work with the human-resources team on physician recruitment.

Shoucair, an Army veteran of 34 years and a colonel in the Illinois National Guard, said it has been a team effort, involving the human-resources department, an in-house physician recruiter and himself, that has led to some big wins lately at the Danville VA facility, where they've filled several medical-professional vacancies in the last six months: chief of dental, chief of radiology, chief of physical medicine rehabilitation, chief of surgery and chief of geriatrics.

"We're competing with everyone else to get them here," said Thomas Stredney, human-resources officer, who described in an interview Thursday with The News-Gazette the challenges the facility faces in recruiting professionals for a list of tough-to-fill positions.

Physicians lead the list, followed by psychiatrists, hospitalists (a type of in-patient physician), nurse practitioners for mental health, psychologists, cardiologists, registered nurse clinical nurse leaders, medical technologists and engineers.

VA officials in Danville are not alone in their searches.

The VA Office of the Inspector General last week issued its fifth annual report on staffing shortages at veterans facilities, and nationally, 140 VA medical centers reported that the most commonly cited need is for medical officers and nurses, which is consistent with the four previous years' reports.

Of the 140 medical centers, 138 listed medical officer (generally physicians), as a shortage, and 108 listed nurses as a shortage. A list was compiled of other clinical positions listed as shortages, and the five most frequently listed are psychiatrist (at 98 facilities), primary care physician (66), psychologist (58), medical technologist (56) and hospitalist (49).

The report lists the top reasons for shortages as lack of qualified candidates, noncompetitive salaries, high staff turnover, geographical recruitment challenges and position categorization issues.

Locally, VA officials report that a lack of qualified candidates and geographical challenges are the top two issues that can create a "perfect storm" in recruiting, according to Stredney.

Competition is already fierce for cardiologists, for example, making it difficult to compete with the generally higher-paying private sector as well as the lure of additional amenities and opportunities in urban areas, according to local VA officials.

In the national report, Danville led all but one of the 140 medical centers in the number of positions listed as experiencing shortages, but local VA officials said Thursday that they misunderstood what data the OIG wanted, and did not provide data showing the actual real-time number of position shortages, which is much smaller, according to Stredney.

"Upon reviewing the context of the self-reported data in the final OIG report, Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System's Human Resources Management Service realized it had reported erroneous information and immediately contacted its VA Regional Office to provide the correct information," local officials said in their statement about the error.

So, rather than 83 positions listed as recruitment challenges in the original report, local VA officials say it's only the nine already mentioned.

And in regard to those nine, local staff are trying to be proactive in recruitment efforts.

They've dedicated one human resource team member solely to physician recruitment. They've bumped salaries and incentives, like education-loan-debt assistance, when they can and tried things as simple as a nursing fair in March, which attracted more than 200 people.

"We had a huge success with that," said Kelley Sermak, nurse executive at the VA.

Rebecca Diskin, assistant human resources officer, said they filled 30 to 35 positions from that fair.

"We would definitely do that again," Sermak said.

Another area of success has been using the physician recruiter, who works with the rest of the human resources team and Shoucair in recruiting doctors. The recruiter is the main contact for physician candidates, keeps the lines of communication open and active and provides any assistance potential hires need, even helping with searches for housing.

Diana Carranza, interim director of the VA medical center in Danville, said it has been helpful to have a physician recruiter solely working at their facility, and the VA's national physician recruitment office has helped train that person. She said just the ongoing communication the recruiter can provide to physician candidates is vital through a hiring process that can take 60 to 90 days.

"That has been the most valuable tool for us," Carranza said of the communication with applicants. "So you're not in the black hole."

But bringing Shoucair into the mix allows him to paint a picture of what it's like to work as a physician at the Danville VA, where more than 30 percent of staff are veterans themselves.

"They have a personal mission and commitment," Carranza said of all VA staff.

Shoucair, who has worked in the private sector, said some of the business pressures on medical professionals there don't exist at the VA.

"You can get back to taking care of patients," said Carranza, who impresses that upon recruits considering joining the Danville staff. He also touts a better overall lifestyle for physicians, who experience better work schedules at the VA and lots of in-house support from other professionals at the facility, like mental health services, allowing for a whole health treatment approach.

But it's not just medical professionals the VA has difficulty recruiting. Human resource professionals topped the national list of nonclinical positions experiencing shortages, followed by police officers. VA facilities have their own police.

Here in Danville, they've been lucky in HR recruitment, Stredney said, but engineers — who help run the medical center infrastructure — are tough to recruit and retain. Carranza said engineers in the private sector can make twice as much, and Stredney said once they get some experience, they're gone.

"That's a hot field," Stredney said.

Engineer recruitment has been a challenge for other employers in the Danville area, too.

Vicki Haugen, chief executive officer of Vermilion Advantage, a membership organization of area employers, dedicates part of her staff to helping about 25 local employers, including the VA, with professional recruitment.

She said medical professionals are in demand in the private sector as well. According to an employer survey conducted by her office of local health care providers, including Carle, the Polyclinic, Christie Clinic and the VA, there will be vacancies in the Danville area for 19 physicians and 33 registered nurses from this past January through December of next year.

Haugen said staff in her office work with internal recruiters at Veterans Affairs in Danville, providing information about the community, housing, schools, even helping spouses with employment or other opportunities.

"We will do anything we can," she said.

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