Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was expected that the U.S. would be facing healthcare worker shortages. Advancing age, improved medical technologies, and generational shifts all indicated this was inevitable. In this regard, nothing has really changed, and healthcare systems struggle with staffing options. The nation still faces major provider shortfalls, and it doesn’t involve just nurses and physicians. Pharmacists and other healthcare professionals are also in limited supply compared to demand. Thus far, however, the most innovative healthcare staffing solutions haven’t been that impressive. Specifically, increasing existing staff workloads and/or paying high incentives for traveling providers depict common strategies. These haven’t been very effective, and if things don’t change, the nation’s healthcare system could decline significantly.
Amidst these recent developments, a variety of healthcare worker groups are looking to unionize in pursuit of greater bargaining power. Facing burnout and exhaustion, many believe this is their only real option for change. This strategy isn’t likely to benefit anyone in the long run, especially those in need of care. Providers may gain a bit more input and healthcare organization concessions in the process. But this isn’t going to solve the healthcare worker shortage or lower costs. And in all likelihood, the value of healthcare will likely decline as care resources will be increasingly rationed. It is against this backdrop that more innovative healthcare staffing solutions are clearly needed. And without question, some excellent opportunities exist in this regard.
Healthcare Strategies to Date
In looking at the overall landscape, several professions are facing healthcare worker shortages. Nursing shortages are among the most profound with an expected 195,000 job openings annually in coming years. At the same time, a fifth of all existing RNs are expected to retire within the next five years. Medical physicians are in the same boat. Within the next 10 years, a shortage of roughly 125,000 doctors of all specialties is anticipated. Similarly, a lack of supply of pharmacists and pharmacy techs are expected with an average of 13,400 jobs opening annually. Since suddenly boosting supply for such professions are not feasible, innovative healthcare staffing solutions are a must. But to date, the approaches pursued are far from creative.
There have been essentially two main strategies in dealing with existing healthcare worker shortages. The first emerged through the pandemic as frontline workers had to work longer hours to address the global crisis. Demand suddenly skyrocketed for healthcare services, and existing providers simply answered the call. But in the aftermath of the pandemic, the workloads placed on these providers subsided little. Shortages persisted in healthcare, and this was an easy, though incredibly passive, way to solve the issue. Needless to say, this hasn’t been highly effective. Nurses, physicians, and even pharmacists are striking or joining unions to collectively bargain for change. Thus, not only have there not been innovative healthcare staffing solutions. But these are ones that undermine quality of care and eventually cost for healthcare systems.
The other approach to address healthcare worker shortages essentially tried to throw money at the problem. Healthcare systems attempted to recruit nurses and other providers from other locations through financial incentives. This certainly worked for some locations to an extent since it provided needed staffing. But at the same time, this dramatically increased human resource costs and did nothing to address the bigger issue. In an effort to balance these rising costs, healthcare systems placed greater pressures on staff to perform. In the process, however, they offered no additional resources. This too has contributed to unionization trends among healthcare workers to date. Therefore, this approach can hardly be considered one of the possible innovative healthcare staffing solutions.
Value-Added or Value-Subtracted?
While healthcare worker shortages were climbing, other developments were also occurring. For decades, rising healthcare costs have been occurring. As a result, policy shifts at a federal level began focusing on healthcare value as its reimbursement framework. How was value measured? Using a series of new healthcare metrics that not only evaluate outcomes across settings but patient satisfaction as well. In theory, this made sense since better outcomes and a better patient experience should guide resource investments. But in reality, these changes have changed the way healthcare systems have treated providers. Combined with the lack of innovative healthcare staffing solutions, healthcare organizations demanded more and more of provider performance. However, they failed to provide them with adequate resources, and they failed to include them in the process. This also has driven healthcare workers toward collective bargaining options.
As policies demanded greater value based on targeted metrics, healthcare organizations began to consolidate. This consolidation allowed greater diversification of patient populations within a healthcare system overall. As such, risk was reduced in a manner similar to that of an insurance company. But this conglomeration effect further undermined the way healthcare professionals were treated. Like factory workers on an assembly line, nurses, doctors, and pharmacists became increasingly micromanaged. These providers have now complained that they are overworked, underappreciated, and unable to provide the care their patient need. As it would seem, the very policies and strategies to enhance value and performance have backfired. These were not the innovative healthcare staffing solutions or outcomes promised.
A Better Way
A few things are clear when it comes to healthcare worker shortages. First, there has been a paucity of innovative healthcare staffing solutions to date. The ones that have been tried have been highly unsuccessful and poorly effective. In fact, some are actually increasing the number of providers thinking about early retirement. Second, demanding providers to do more with less is a bad recipe for lasting success. As trends in unionization and collective bargaining are proving, these will only lead to increasing healthcare worker shortages. To date, strategies selected to meet healthcare worker demand have failed miserably. Healthcare workers have never felt more isolated and underappreciated as they do currently.
In looking at things over the long-term, there’s little question that incentives should be considered. Encouraging education and training of future healthcare providers should be part of innovative healthcare staffing solutions. But these won’t solve the immediate problems. Instead, healthcare organizations and systems should explore short-term alternatives that have tremendous potential for success. Outsourcing some healthcare staffing services is a highly effective way to address shortages and contain costs. Likewise, virtual talent and artificial intelligence solutions could greatly help. Not only may these tools reduce the number of healthcare workers needed. But they could also alleviate workload on existing providers by making use of their time more efficient. These are the types of innovative healthcare staffing solutions needed today if healthcare value is truly the goal.