The healthcare labor shortage is a staffing crisis we can no longer ignore. While most people attribute the staffing shortage to COVID-19, the truth is that it was an issue long before the pandemic and will continue to be an issue long after.
According to the article, “A Public Health Crisis: Staffing Shortages in Health Care”, “The World Health Organization predicts a shortfall of 15 million health care workers worldwide in 2030. The International Centre on Nurse Migration projects there will be a shortage of 13 million nurses alone by 2030, up from a shortage of 6 million before the pandemic,” (Keck School of Medicine of USC, 2023). This article uncovers the reasons why the healthcare labor shortage has progressed and what we still need to do.
Factors that contributed to the labor shortage
While COVID impacted the staffing shortage, there are many other factors that have played a major role in this ongoing crisis. For instance, the aging population, burnout among healthcare professionals, a lack of investment in training healthcare workers, and more.
The Aging Population
As technology progresses, medical advancements have prolonged the average person’s life span. While this is beneficial, it also means that people today require care for longer periods of time. There has been a drastic increase in the number of individuals from the older generation who have recently retired, which is problematic because there are less people in the successive generations to provide the care that is needed. Daily, about 10,000 individuals aged 59-77 have joined Medicare plans, which has increased the demand for more healthcare workers in recent years (Barrueta, 2023).
Burnout Among Healthcare Professionals
Being a healthcare professional can be exhausting when labor shortages cause a high demand to work overtime. This inevitably leads to burnout, which has been proven to be a contributing factor to the staffing shortage in the healthcare industry. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly did not help the problem, as it further increased the demand for qualified staff due to extraordinarily high patient numbers. The lack of available staff caused unsafe nurse-to-patient ratios, which contributed to additional feelings of burnout. A survey found that 34% of nurses wished to quit their healthcare jobs by the end of 2022, and 44% said this was due to burnout (Keck School of Medicine of USC, 2023).
Limited Opportunities for Training New Healthcare Workers
As healthcare professionals require specialized training, not just anyone can be hired to fill these types of positions. Training opportunities are severely limited due to the lack of nursing faculty available to train the next generation of healthcare workers. Universities turn away tens of thousands of applicants for nursing and healthcare programs each year (Duquesne University School of Nursing, 2023). This is another leading cause as to why the healthcare labor shortage is so prevalent.
Other Contributors to the Shortage
While the reasons listed above seem to have a bigger influence on the staffing shortage, there are other factors that have contributed to the issue. These factors include the Great Resignation, an increased demand for healthcare workers in remote or underserved areas, and the effects of labor strikes by healthcare employees.
The Great Resignation is a term that refers to a record number of workers that chose to quit their jobs, including healthcare professionals (Healthcare Workforce Trends, 2023). Many factors have influenced The Great Resignation, such as lack of job satisfaction, healthcare decisions being politicized, and more (Healthcare Workforce Trends, 2023). These factors have required healthcare employers to focus on employee wellbeing to attract and retain talent.
When healthcare workers get sent to remote or underserved areas, they tend to be unsatisfied with their jobs for several reasons, such as being far from family and having a lack of resources to properly treat patients. This is unfortunate because millions of Americans live in these remote and underserved areas where trained professionals are lacking (Keck School of Medicine of USC, 2023).
The labor strike activity that has become more prevalent in recent years is yet another contributor to the healthcare labor shortage. Nurses across the country are partaking in walkouts because they have experienced labor-intensive working conditions, overwhelming feelings of burnout, understaffed healthcare facilities, and insufficient pay (NurseTogether Editorial Team, 2023). Since nurses and other healthcare professionals play a vital role in the well-being of many individuals, strategies to help with the labor shortage should be implemented immediately.
Strategies and Solutions That Need to be Implemented
While the healthcare labor shortage continues to be a problem today, there are strategies that can be implemented to attract more workers into the industry.
What Universities Need to Do
Hire More Healthcare Educators: While the country is experiencing a shortage of healthcare workers, it is also experiencing a shortage of healthcare educators. This is problematic because the world will not see an increase in healthcare professionals if we do not have the educators necessary to teach new medical students. “The lack of investment in training a health care workforce is a major factor, especially in low-income countries. However, wealthy nations also suffer from a training shortage, as illustrated by the U.S.’s shortage of nursing faculty, which reduces the number of students who can enroll in training,” (Keck School of Medicine of USC, 2023).
Diversify the Field: While it is not entirely on universities to ensure that the healthcare field becomes more diverse, there are steps that can be taken to promote diversity among the group of students entering the industry. For instance, universities could encourage students to utilize academic support programs that could help them succeed in their studies (Alfano, 2016). It would also help if universities were to normalize getting academic support due to students feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed about needing extra assistance (Alfano, 2016). Another widely beneficial strategy that could be implemented is offering tuition assistance programs, especially to individuals in underprivileged areas. This would increase the opportunities for people in underprivileged areas to become professionals in the healthcare industry.
Implement Tuition Assistance Programs: Becoming a healthcare professional is not cheap, as tuition is becoming increasingly more expensive as time goes by. When students need specialized training and higher forms of education, it can deter many young individuals from feeling like they even have a chance to enter the medical field. If more universities offered tuition assistance programs, then more healthcare professionals would enter the field and the labor shortage would not be as prevalent.
Offer online learning and continued education: Getting a degree in healthcare can be a lengthy and draining process. If universities provide the option of obtaining a health degree and other certificates online, this could lead to an increase in people entering the medical field. Although clinicals would still need to take place in person, students could commute less and complete some of their course work in the comfort of their home (Duquesne University School of Nursing, 2023). Online learning opportunities offer people the ability to pursue higher education which allows them to advance their healthcare career and move into roles that have a high demand.
What Employers Need to Do
Allow for flexible schedules: When healthcare professionals are expected to work long and unconventional hours, it seems necessary to allow more flexibility regarding scheduling. One study found that 55.4% of care providers had greater work satisfaction when given the opportunity to have a flexible schedule (Frasier, 2022). The survey also found that 50 percent of respondents with flexible schedules experienced a better quality of life, feeling less stressed and more in control of their workload (Frasier, 2022).
Promote a Good Work Life Balance: When healthcare workers are given the opportunity to have a flexible schedule, a good work life balance is much easier to achieve. Prioritizing work life balance is necessary for many reasons, the most important being that it keeps healthcare professionals from experiencing symptoms of burnout. A good work life balance has also been linked to a decrease in health problems and an increase in employee engagement (Wedgwood, 2022).
Employers can promote a better work life balance by allowing workers to take short breaks when necessary, providing an appropriate amount of paid time off, and encouraging workers to utilize their paid time off (Wedgwood, 2022). When healthcare professionals feel their best, they provide the best care for their patients. This is a simple, yet crucial, strategy for helping with the labor shortage issue.
Establish worker wellness programs: Working in the healthcare industry can take a toll on a person. By establishing a wellness program for healthcare professionals, employee retention can increase, while burnout and PTSD symptoms decrease (Frasier, 2022). Additionally, worker wellness programs have been seen to boost employee engagement and productivity, improve mental and physical health, and increase the attendance of workers (Indeed Editorial Team, 2023). If workplaces focused on wellness programs, this could help with the labor shortage of all industries, and not just in healthcare.
Offer Loan Repayment Programs: As many people know, student loans are a huge deterrent when it comes to seeking out a medical career. However, if healthcare professionals were relieved of some of the burden that student loans place on them, then more people would consider entering the field. Healthcare employers could incorporate student loan repayment programs into their benefits packages to entice potential future employees. Opportunities like this could then lead to more healthcare professionals being interested in advancing their healthcare careers, which would maintain retention of workers in the field.
What Staffing Agencies Can Do to Help
Manage Float Pools: In healthcare, a float pool is a pre-approved group of skilled healthcare professionals who are available to work when demand is high due to shifts that have unexpectedly become available, or when more workers are needed in general to assist in-house staff (Behnke, 2023). Shown to be a successful staffing solution, both internal and external staffing float pools reduce clinical labor costs while maintaining high-quality patient care and employee engagement in hospitals and healthcare facilities.
Float pools provide a wide range of benefits such as a decrease in overworked staff, an opportunity for healthcare professionals to develop their skillset, a safe nurse-to-patient ratio, a flexible schedule, and cost efficiency (Behnke, 2023).
Per Diem Staffing: Per diem staffing allows nurses and healthcare professionals to pick up shifts on an as-needed basis. This is a valuable solution for the labor shortage because it allows healthcare facilities to fill shifts instantly when demand is high. Better yet, per diem staffing is more cost-effective than travel nursing, which is helpful for employers who may be looking to reduce spending.
Per diem work benefits nurses as well as healthcare facilities. The higher pay rates, flexible work schedule, and the opportunity to gain experience in a variety of facilities, make per diem work very attractive to nurses.
Partner with a Managed Service Provider: Another ideal medical staffing solution is a Managed Service Provider (MSP). An MSP manages contingent labor by providing access to essential personnel, taking over certain tasks so organizations can focus on growth factors, enhancing the quality of candidates, and much more (Anserteam, 2022).
Benefits of an MSP generally include increased productivity, the ability to save on costs with temporary employees, improved retention rates, and access to metrics and technology (Healthcare Workforce Trends, 2023). Utilizing an MSP is an effective and reliable way to quickly gain access to skilled healthcare professionals when demand is high.
Another suitable staffing solution associated with an MSP is vendor management services (VMS). VMS software is a valuable tool that helps simplify healthcare businesses staffing process by managing both internal and external candidates. This advanced technology provides an automated system that can quickly streamline procedures and make recruitment workflow faster and easier than ever before. VMS eliminates the need to manage multiple services and vendors; instead, you can use one dedicated partner to keep track of invoicing, reporting, compliance, and staffing.
Permanent Hires: Another long-term staffing solution is to hire more permanent staff rather than utilize short-term staffing solutions like travel nurses. Permanent employees offer healthcare professionals the chance to establish their medical careers, while also providing healthcare facilities with skilled, long-term workers.
Healthcare facilities can partner with staffing agencies to help hire part-time or full-time permanent staff who are affordable solutions to counteract the healthcare staffing shortage. Agencies will work to find qualified candidates that match the skills and requirements needed by a facility. Temp-to-perm options also offer both the candidate and the facility time to determine if they are the right fit for each other. With these many strategies and staffing solutions available, one would think the healthcare labor shortage would subside by now. However, this is unfortunately not the case.
As the demand for quality care continues to rise, we need more healthcare workers than ever before. To ensure more healthcare workers join the field, diversity needs to be more prevalent, tuition assistance programs need to be implemented, and online learning needs to be offered. To ensure healthcare professionals remain in the field, work schedules need to be more flexible, a good work-life balance should be promoted, worker wellness programs need to be established, and loan repayment programs should be offered. The healthcare industry will not see an improvement involving the staffing shortage until these necessary changes have been made.
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