A flexible (and satisfying) solution
A flexible (and satisfying) solution: Tracey Nolen, nurse manager for the Flex Unit, helps every patient on the unit know that they’ve come to exactly the right place.

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Nursing Innovations

06. Open more beds when you need them. Close them when you don't.

When it comes to patient census, every hospital unit has its sweet spot—the number of patients that is most productive and efficient. Problem is, it’s all too easy to find your units operating in a very sour spot— understaffed and stretching human resources too thin, overstaffed and unnecessarily wasting financial resources, or worse: completely maxed out and turning patients away.

It’s a situation that’s bad for patients, bad for nurses, and bad for business. And it’s the situation that drove University of Utah Health Care to create a brand-new mode of operation: the Flex Unit, a 13-bed unit that opens and closes based on the daily hospital census.

Boosting hospital-wide efficiency.

“We couldn’t keep thinking the same way and expecting different results,” says Tracey Nolen, Nurse Manager of the Flex Unit. “The critical red census alerts were unacceptable. Going on divert was unacceptable.”

Nolen’s flexible, use-only-what-you-need solution turned out to be a million-dollar idea. Literally. Staffed by the hospital’s committed, highly trained resource nurses, the Flex Unit has helped the hospital to consistently run at its sweet spot and save over $1,084,000 in staffing costs. At the same time, the unit boasts a patient satisfaction rate of 99%—one of the highest in the hospital.

“Our patients aren’t tasks. Our patients are people.”
—Tracey Nolen, nurse manager, Flex Unit

$1,084,000 saved

As a 13-bed unit that can be opened or closed based on hospital need, the Flex Unit helps every unit in the hospital to run at its sweet spot—providing more efficient care, without spending more money.

In an overflow unit where patients could easily be grumpy, if not downright angry, the Flex Unit has made each patient feel like they are welcome, cared for, and exactly where they should be—which is why patient satisfaction consistently soars

Building an overflow unit that patients actually love.

At many hospitals, getting “stuck” on an overflow unit leads to low patient satisfaction marks. But that’s not the case on the Flex Unit. “The patients who come to us are really sick and often unhappy,” says Tracey. “The hospital is the last place in the world that they want to be; especially if they feel like they’ve been put in the wrong place due to overcrowding. It’s our job to turn that around.” Citing excellent clinical care as a basic patient expectation and right, Tracey talks about how her Flex Unit nurses consistently exceed that expectation.

“Our nurses understand the risk of low patient satisfaction on an overflow unit, and they go the extra mile to make sure the emotional needs of patients and families are met,” says Tracey. It could be grabbing snacks for a tired, hungry family. Or providing new clothes for a trauma patient to go home in. “Our patients on the Flex Unit have lost their control,” says Tracey. “We look for ways to give some of it back—and to give them back their dignity. Above all, we always remember that our patients aren’t tasks. Our patients are people.”