When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, healthcare workers across the United States were rightfully celebrated as heroes. Months later, stressful shifts, extended hours and fluctuating safety protocols have ravaged the workforce. As one global health crisis drags on, the industry is now facing a new threat: a growing healthcare staffing crisis.
The State of the Healthcare Workforce
There is no shortage of alarming statistics to point to regarding the current state of the healthcare workforce. Since February 2020, employment in healthcare is down a total of 450,000 jobs. The disappearing workforce can be attributed to several developments, including layoffs, retirement and resignations due to burnout. While the amount of skilled talent that has stepped away from the workforce is concerning, there could be even more poised to leave. In fact, one survey found that up to 31 percent of the remaining healthcare workers have considered leaving their employer. This presents a daunting challenge for the industry now and in the future. Nurses in particular illustrate this story in sharp detail. According to Dr. Ernest Grant, President of the American Nurses Association, the nation will need an additional 1.2 million nurses by next year to meet the growing demand for their services and to replace those leaving.
At the same time, total labor expenses have increased 14.8% when compared to October 2019. How can this be possible when staffing levels have dipped so drastically? As the labor market tightens amidst the Great Resignation, higher salaries are needed to retain existing employees and attract top talent. Healthcare employers are feeling the pinch of desperately needing talent to fill critical positions, while feeling the sting in their bottom line.
The Effects of Sustained Talent Shortages
At first, the effects of talent shortages may not be obvious from the outside looking in. Over time, cracks in the foundation begin to form. Recent reporting from Becker’s Hospital Review notes that the growing labor crisis in healthcare may be having an effect on patient safety and quality of care, but the lag on data reporting in this area leaves this an open question for the time being.
One area that has not lagged behind in reporting is the amount of stress being placed upon those who remain on the frontlines. Levels of stress-related conditions, such as workplace burnout, are spiking across the healthcare industry as teams are pushed to the brink of exhaustion. As the fight against COVID-19 continues, healthcare teams will also need to prepare for an influx of patients who have delayed long needed services and procedures during the darkest days of the pandemic.
Building Back the Healthcare Talent Pipeline
While there are no easy answers to the challenges facing the healthcare industry today, there are steps that can be taken to take the press off of existing employees and replenish the talent pipeline. Potential solutions include utilizing temporary employment options, investing in technology and expanding training programs.
- Temporary Employment Options: Hiring a contingent or temporary workforce is one way for healthcare organizations to fill gaps on teams quickly and efficiently. One report published by Premier shows the use of this type of labor up over 130 percent when compared to pre-pandemic numbers. As more workers transition into new industries during The Great Resignation, staffing agencies provide an entry point for talent eager to take on new opportunities. Partnering with such an organization can provide access to untapped talent pipelines.
- Investing in Technology: Healthcare, like all industries, finds itself more and more reliant on technology. While investment in areas such as virtual and telehealth, automation and other health tech tools may lead to sticker shock initially, the improvements in efficiency will pay dividends in the long term.
- Expanded Training Programs: With a wave of new talent and technology entering the healthcare space, there needs to be an increased focus on proper training for all roles. Organizations that find creative ways to upskill and reskill their workforce will benefit from more sustainable retention numbers.
When faced with unprecedented challenges, the healthcare industry has time and time again met the moment with innovative solutions. This time, the threat comes not from a virus, but from a staffing shortage that has spread rapidly due to new and pre-existing workforce conditions.
Is your team searching for workforce solutions to enable you to build great healthcare teams on the road to recovery? Click here to learn more about Medix’s healthcare staffing solutions and recruitment services.
I am a medical technologist (ASCP)who has worked in the microbiology department at a 150 -bed hospital for 30 years (I plan to retire in May 2022).
I believe that STEMC bears some responsibility for the lack of interest in the ancillary health professions: lab, x-ray, respiratory, MRI, etc.) and the lack of interest in other science-related careers that are not “high-profile.”
STEMC emphasizes the already-visible (mainly through television dramas and online promotions) high-power/high income science professions–doctor, research scientist, engineer, etc.
Teenage girls especially are targeted with presentations designed to persuade them to enter these power careers, which will take many years of post-high school education which will cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and make having a family difficult (understatement).
Slogans along the lines of “You CAN do it!” convince many teenagers, especially girls, that “Yes, YOU can do it!!
The problem is that many teenagers CAN’T do it. That’s cold,hard reality.
Teens may be intelligent, possibly even straight-A students in high school, but many do not possess the extremely high level of intelligence and the study skills and personal discipline, combined with the passion for medicine, research, invention, math, etc., that will make it likely that they will actually finish the many years of schooling required to enter these lofty fields. Achieving passing grades in college is difficult for any student who has not attended a “college prep” school” and been adequately-prepared for the sheer volume of reading, studying, and testing. For many public school grads, these skills were never taught because they weren’t necessary.
How many young people start college with grandiose ideas of becoming the doctor who cures cancer or the engineer who solves the climate change crisis–and end up flunking out or receiving grades other than As in their General Biology, General Chemistry, and Calculus classes? This experience, in many cases, shreds self-esteem and makes it difficult for the young person to figure out what to do with their life after all their dreams of high achievement are dashed by reality.
Many of these idealistic and enthusiastic young people become discouraged about their abilities (which they were led to believe were “unstoppable!” through the toxic-positive STEMC slogans and stories) and end up dropping out of college entirely, not knowing that there are many other viable career options in health care, technology, industry, etc. that they never, ever heard about from STEMC.
Also, many young people lack the financial resources–a two-parent family or extended family with the money to pay for many years of college and grad school/medical school, or the savvy to know how to obtain scholarships and grants and donations. Many families have never had anyone attend college, and navigating the college journey is frustrating (understatement).
In addition, some families harbor “naysayers” who berate the college attendee for being too “high-minded” for the rest of the family. This can be incredibly discouraging to even the most enthusiastic young person, who is led to feel that they are somehow betraying their family.
Many young people have an unrealistic idea of what being a doctor, researcher, engineer, etc. means in real life. Their ideas have come from online sites with stories of “heroes” and also from the plethora of ridiculous medical shows on television, where medical breakthroughs and heroic outcomes are accomplished in one season of hour-long dramas, including plenty of romantic/sexual relationships between doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators. Apparently these three groups do all the work of healthcare, as we never see a lab tech, a phlebotomist, a respiratory tech, a pharmacy tech, a physical therapy assistant, a OR tech, a MRI tech, an x-ray tech, a refrigeration specialist, a maintenance crew member, an IT tech, etc. etc, etc.–all the other “ancillary” health care professionals who work in hospitals in REAL LIFE and earn a living wage.
At this time in history, in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, many health-care facilities are dangerously short-staffed, with shortages of not only nurses and doctors, but all the other health care professionals and workers that are required to make the doctors’ and nurses’ work possible.
So why, WHY haven’t we seen online campaigns advocating any of these other professions: lab, X-ray, pharmacy, MRI, etc., that are currently operating with inadequate staffing and exhausting overtime, leading to attrition from these professions?
Why doesn’t STEMC push THESE career options? Why doesn’t television take us into the hospital lab, or the X-Ray department? Why don’t these shows feature a Respiratory Tech helping a patient to breathe, or an MRI tech reassuring a patient as they prepare them for the noises of an MRI, or a IT specialist training a group of Unit Secretaries how to order patient tests?
Why doesn’t STEMC explain how many of these options can be achieved in a 2-year community college program, with an option to complete a Bachelors’s Degree and in many cases, get the tuition payed for by the employer? And…woo hoo hoo!–straight As are NOT a requirement!
Some of these career options can be achieved through an 18-week training process–yes, these options won’t pay as much–but they pay enough to live on and enable the young person to learn about the many other scientific careers that can be achieved with just a few more years of study. And these careers are more rewarding to the soul than making sandwiches or packing boxes.
If we are to stop the health-care staffing crisis, and the shortage of science-related career workers in other fields besides health care, we simply must see STEMC and other educational programs increase their scope and promote not only the high-profile careers to idealistic children and teenagers, but also promote the many other science-related career options that, in spite of the lack of adulation from Hollywood and the media, still employ real-life heroes who are helping to make this world a healthier place, and happen to be more attainable by young people and their families.
In the meantime, I will continue to work way too much overtime for someone my age (64 years old and a widow–my husband died of COVID in 2020 before the vaccines came out–and yes, he wore a mask and did all the other little tricks that supposedly protect us from COVID)–and count the days until I retire in May in 2022. I’ve loved being a Med Tech, but…I sure could have used more co-workers in the last ten years or so.