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Even before the pandemic, it was well recognized that a future nursing shortage was inevitable. The average age of nursing populations was getting older, which meant a high number would retire in the coming years. Likewise, an aging population would require more intensive medical care, which increased the demand for medical staffing. But these shortages developed much faster with the help of COVID. Not only has the stress of managing a pandemic led to early retirements. But even younger staff members are leaving for new careers. As a result, healthcare organizations are trying to find how best to deal with these dilemmas.

Of course, burnout from caring for COVID patients isn’t the only reason medical staffing shortages exist. Like other sectors, the healthcare industry is being affected by the “Great Resignation.” Thousands of workers have resigned from their jobs after the pandemic provided an opportunity to reassess their future. Likewise, for nurses specifically, new lucrative opportunities as a traveling nurse has also played a role. Many smaller healthcare organizations struggle with a nursing shortage, being unable to afford temporary staffing solutions. With this in mind, it’s important that hospitals reassess their situation. And in the process, consider a different approach in dealing with today’s medical staffing challenges.

“Small to medium-sized hospitals generally have dozens of full-time openings, and the large health systems have hundreds of full-time openings.” – James Quick, President, SimpliFi

A Snapshot of Medical Staffing Shortages

In looking at the recent projections, the next few years for medical staffing look to be difficult ones. Over the next 5 years, the number of healthcare workers needed will increase by 1 million. This is more than a tenth of the number of healthcare workers employed today. In addition, surveys suggests that about 6.5 million individuals will leave their positions by 2026. However, there will be less than 2 million workers to replace them. These reflects a serious gap between labor supply and demand in the years to come. Therefore, it’s essential healthcare organizations plan now in anticipation of these developments.

Some nurses in protective gear sitting around
Two years into the pandemic and there is a nursing shortage–how are healthcare organizations solving this riddle?

While shortages exist in all medical staffing areas, a nursing shortage appears to be the most substantial. In 2022, there will be about 100,000 nursing positions open across the nation, and this figure is expected to increase. The American Nurses Association anticipate about 500,000 nurses will retire in the coming year. All in all, this means more than a million nurses will be needed to address the nursing shortage adequately. Given current availability, this isn’t likely to happen. Thus, other strategies will need to be considered in order for hospitals to meet patient care expectations.

“The nurses who haven’t left, who have stayed with their facilities, they are seeing these other people come in now who are making more money. It provides a tense working environment.” – Carrie Kroll, Vice President, Texas Hospital Association

A Perfect Storm of Causes

As is often the case, there is no single cause for today’s present medical staffing challenges. Without question, the pandemic played a major role, leading to high levels of stress and burnout among healthcare workers. But even if COVID had never appeared, the healthcare sector would be dealing with a nursing shortage and other staffing issues. This is because aging patient populations are increasingly demanding higher amounts of care. Likewise, nursing student numbers have fallen well short of existing nurses who are retiring. Plus, a significant number of medical personnel are choosing medical freelance positions. In short, demand has been consistently rising while supply has been contracting. (Read more about digitization and the world of healthcare freelancers in this Bold story.)

In addition to these issues, some select hospitals are struggling to compete for nursing hires. Given the number of vacancies available, temporary medical staffing agencies have recently thrived. Traveling nurses, in particular, are reaping the benefits of these developments as salaries have climbed dramatically. A few years ago, a traveling nurse made between $1,000 and $2,000 a week. Today, however, the salary range for a traveling nurse is between $3,000 and $5,000. For smaller healthcare organization, such fees are beyond their financial abilities. As a result, larger institutions are having less of a struggle than smaller ones.

“…[O]rganizations are taking a step back and thinking about using LPNs and CNAs and looking at all the different types of staffing models. They’re going to have to staff differently because you just can’t find enough RNs.” – Rachel Polhemus, Senior Partner, WittKieffer

Solving the Current Medical Staffing Dilemma

While the ideal solution for medical staffing challenges would be increased labor supply, this isn’t likely to happen soon. Instead, agile healthcare organizations must be creative and innovative in their strategies. Some hospitals are therefore relaxing some qualification requirements to accommodate their needs. Specifically, many are using nursing assistants, CNAs, and LPNs to fill RN positions to address the nursing shortage. Similarly, nurse practitioners and physician assistants are being utilized as primary care providers more. With adequate oversight and training, these are reasonable approaches.

Other strategies involve a more long-term approach to retaining talent in hopes of reducing the number of vacant positions. In this regard, healthcare organizations must create positive workplace environments that support, challenge, and reward staff. Likewise, knowing nurses might leave for more lucrative travel nursing positions, adequate compensation must be provided to deter resignations. These strategies won’t completely solve the nursing shortage and medical staffing issue. But they can ease the burden for talent demand in a market with limited supply. As is always the case, efforts to retain existing talent is much less costly than recruiting and training new staff.

Choosing the Right Medical Staffing Services

Inevitably, healthcare organizations will need assistance in addressing issues related to medical staffing. Unfortunately, many temporary staffing agencies are taking advantage of the current labor market. These agencies are charging high fees and awarding personnel high salaries. Using such agencies may therefore be impractical for many healthcare organizations. However, reasonable medical staffing services do exist. Thus, in addition to the strategies mentioned above, hospitals should seek staffing services that meet their budget and needs. Without a doubt, the next several years will be challenging given the medical personnel and nursing shortage. But the right approach can help healthcare organizations survive and eventually result in a more secure situation.

 

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