Avant Healthcare Professionals
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
When surveying her life and her remarkable success, she paused, found this statement by Calvin Coolidge and read it. Few live up to the ideals and the outcomes of persistence and determination, but Shari Dingle Sandifer, the founder and CEO of Avant Healthcare Professionals is certainly one of them. When she’s not running her medical staffing company, she’s a forceful lobbyist on behalf of immigration reform and the chairperson of Orlando Inc., all the while juggling being a single mother of three teenagers.
Struck with encephalitis at 13, she wasn’t able to speak without slurring her words, struggled to just walk and her writing was, by her admission, more like scribbling. It was an experience that fortified her character. “I do remember being scared and since it attacked my brain stem, I had to rebuild neural pathways, basically relearn many things. I just focused on what I had to do to get back to where I was. Next to learning to persevere, I learned or perhaps discovered the second most fundamental requirement of any entrepreneur – I always had this optimistic perspective that if I worked hard I would make it back,” she said.
All business innovation is based on identifying a problem and solving it. For Sandifer, it was the growing scarcity the nation is facing for health care clinicians. In rural areas the challenge is already reaching critical mass; young practitioners want to live in urban environments and in an industry faced with an aging workforce, many shy away from nursing’s strenuous demands.
“We were in the midst of the greatest nursing shortage in modern history; it started in the late ‘90s and the only thing that stemmed the tide was the recession, which drove many women nurses back into the workforce when their husbands became unemployed. This temporarily masked the problem,” she explained.
Adding to the need are the droves of formerly uninsured patients entering the market, as well as 10,000 Americans a day turning 65. According to Sandifer, “Shortages are moving beyond what anyone foresaw.
“In the ‘90s, I joined the staff of a company in Boston that was doing international recruitment. By 2003, I had three children under 7 and was traveling around the country and around the world. Two things hit me – one, I had worked with Johns Hopkins, which had done a fabulous job of preparing its staff to receive foreign professionals. I thought, ‘Gosh, if every hospital had a program like this we could eliminate a lot of the problems these workers are having and we could prepare the clients better to understand the transition. We could also fill in the gaps in the nurses’ training experience.’ In the U.S., nurses are the eyes and ears of the physicians; that isn’t the case in most countries. They aren’t nearly as autonomous as in our system.
“I came to the conclusion that I could provide those clinical programs for the nurses and the clients. Secondly, if I was able to be based here in Orlando, it would help balance my family life. So I decided to start the company.
“I found an angel investor, who had experience with staffing and was from Mozambique. He got his nursing degree here in the U.S. and saved for four months straight, working back to back night shifts, to start his per diem nursing company. He saw the need and understood the international element as a solution,” she said.
Crisis & Opportunity
Most people don’t realize that of the 2.8 million nursing workforce in America, 900,000 or over 33 percent, are over the age of 50. Though, in general, people are working longer, they aren’t working 12 hour shifts in a hospital; though shifts can be modified the problem remains. In addition to the nursing shortage, there is also a faculty shortage to train on the supply side. A possible solution that has been suggested is to move older practicing nurses into faculty positions, but that transition isn’t always a fit.
Another factor is that nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants are going to become a major part of the health care equation in the future, as a part of the primary care delivery system. Yet there is a shortage in these professions. Sandifer pointed out that somewhere between 30-35 percent of the physicians in this country are also over 50, and fewer and fewer medical students are going into primary care.
Hence the market proposition for Avant and the need to look into foreign markets for the professionals who can fill this gap. “We just celebrated our 10th anniversary and some of the people that we brought to this country, who worked for Avant then joined the staff of a local hospital or practice, came back to share their story. Many have joined the ranks of management with our clients or they have gone on to continue their education,” Sandifer said beaming.
Sandifer explained that foreign recruitment for medical professionals “is a very complex proposition; we go overseas and partner with local recruitment and staffing companies in various countries. Surprisingly, within the last few years, Facebook has become a huge recruitment vehicle. In the islands of the Caribbean or in the Mideast there are a lot of nurses that would like to come to the U.S. We can target their profession on Facebook with an advertisement about Avant, ‘Explore a world of opportunity in the U.S with Avant…’ That is a game changer, though I would add that 70-80 percent of all our referrals come by word of mouth.”
Some immigration categories have a backlog of up to 6 years. The higher the level of education or skill, the less the backlog occurs. “It is about a year and half or two years. We take them through the process of getting their education deemed equivalent to the U.S., which is part of the immigration requirement and prepare them for state or national exams. Also, if you come from a place where English isn’t the primary language, you have to take English proficiency exams, so we help them prepare for that when necessary. Health care workers are the most highly vetted category, for good reason.
What we are able to leverage is someone’s desire to come to this country and the need that exists here, especially in less desirable areas, where they have to use visiting nurses. We staffed up in Nome, Alaska – that isn’t an easy sell to most Americans!” she said smiling.
It appears as though Coolidge was right. “The slogan, ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” Of course, insight and foresight, creativity, passion and a truly entrepreneurial spirit are also factors that have made Shari Sandifer and Avant Healthcare Professionals such remarkable successes.