Northeastern algorithm aided nursing homes during COVID-19 pandemic

hospital bed in nursing home
Nursing homes are experiencing historic shortages throughout the U.S. AP Photo/David Goldman

It turns out that a digital platform assembled by a Northeastern research group on short notice amid the COVID-19 pandemic substantially helped lessen a Massachusetts crisis in healthcare staffing.

The partnership helped the long-term care industry and its dire need to find and hire workers during the pandemic. Ozlem Ergun, COE Distinguished Professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern, worked with her students in 2020 to design and run a centralized process that paired healthcare workers with open positions at long-term care facilities.

headshot of Ozlem Ergun (left) and Yakov Bart (right)
Ozlem Ergun (left), COE distinguished professor of mechanical and industrial engineering; and Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing and Thomas E. Moore Faculty Fellow at Northeastern. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Ergun and her students created their centralized process and matching algorithms in less than 10 days. They managed and adjusted the formula to focus on facilities with the greatest staffing challenges, in partnership with Massachusett’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School. 

“The question is: Did it actually help?” asks Ergun’s colleague Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing and Thomas E. Moore Faculty Fellow at Northeastern. 

Based on a pair of empirical models that compared facilities using the matching platform versus those that relied only on traditional hiring methods, Bart and Ergun teamed with Hamid Zarei, a PhD candidate at the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, to find that the centralized matching process produced significant and rapid gains in the number of staffers who became available to care for residents at nursing homes.

“This staff-to-residents ratio went up higher and faster for facilities that chose to participate in this program,” says Bart, referring to the ratio of staff members responsible for the care of each nursing home resident. 

In all, 216 Massachusetts nursing homes accessed the portal. More than 1,000 applicants were matched to jobs on the busiest days.

“We ran the platform for about a year and a half with the state,” says Ergun, noting that the emergency funding for the algorithm expired last year. “Doing that, we were able to gather a lot of data.”

Bart says the study serves as a call to action for public policymakers throughout the U.S. to consider investing in similar employment matching programs in advance of public health emergencies.

Worker shortages at nursing homes remain at “historic highs” in Massachusetts, according to a State House News Service report. And it’s no different across the country: More than 60% of U.S. nursing homes have limited new admissions due to staffing shortages, according to a national survey

“Most job boards will show all of the jobs to the people who are looking for employment, and the matching part is not there, usually,” Ergun says. “You have to have some sort of a centralized authority to look at the global demand and the global supply and then do effective distribution.”

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