The staffing challenges facing senior living communities are not just human resources headaches. They also represent the biggest operational risk in the industry, according to panel members and attendees at a Friday morning session at the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care Fall Conference in Chicago.

The speakers discussed several staffing-related issues as well as the complexities in addressing them. Technology figured prominently.

Texting, for instance, has become a common way for physicians and nurses to handle resident care matters and for staff members to communicate with one another as well as with residents’ family members, Aaron Bloom of Traditions Senior Management pointed out. The practice, however, can lead to potential HIPAA violations and inappropriate messages.

“It’s not realistic to say ‘We’re not going to text,’ ” Kymberlee Dougherty Tysk of Hummingbird Risk Advisors said. “Physicians are going to text. Families will text and email.” Training and communication when turnover occurs, therefore, is vital.

Tysk said she does not encourage communities to have written policies prohibiting texting, “because you’re going to fail.”

Electronic communication issues need to be thought of as risk management issues, not IT issues, John DiMaggio of Blue Orange Compliance said.

“In reality, risk management should be part of everyone’s job,” Tysk added. “Train staff to understand that risk management is woven into everything they do.”

Another technology-related issue also involves cellphones, the panelists said.

“Everyone has a cellphone, which means everyone has a camera,” Tysk said. “What are you telling people they should be doing?”

Communities may want employees to use their cellphone cameras during an active shooter event, she pointed out, but not to record an argument between family members.

Some other staffing-related risks involve how people are hired, who is hired, how they are trained, how competency is determined and whether a community’s sales and marketing professionals are putting unrealistic expectations in the minds of residents via their words and materials, she said.

And additional staffing-related risks, the panelists said, include workers’ compensation and discrimination claims as well as workplace violence — originating in or finding its way into the community — involving employees, residents, family members and friends.

Building a positive company culture, admittedly a difficult task, can help lead to decreased turnover, which families see and appreciate, Bloom said. Stable leadership at the top is crucial, Jeff Marshall of Omega Healthcare Investors added.

The good news is that when employees understand what their roles are in risk management, companies’ costs are reduced because they spend less money on lawsuits and hiring, Tysk said.

The bottom line, she said: “It shouldn’t be a program. It’s who the company is.”

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