It’s an obvious statement: Without caregivers, patients cannot receive care. But recruiting and retaining staff is much more complex than posting a few “help wanted” ads in the newspaper. Staffing shortages throughout the healthcare industry are an increasing concern across the nation, and these workforce deficiencies make providing high-quality, affordable care a daunting task.
As a Human Resources Director for Intermountain Healthcare, I know firsthand the shortage of caregivers is a complex problem with few easy solutions. Staffing challenges create stress and burnout, inconsistent care, and mistakes that can often be long-lasting or even fatal. Additionally, not having enough caregivers creates unnecessary costs in healthcare — there’s overtime and premium pay, along with higher rates for temporary staffing solutions.
A shortfall of nurses and other healthcare workers is often part of the national news cycle, but I predict the problem is about to get much worse. Our population is both growing and aging — meaning more people are going to need more healthcare.
Jill Vicory with The Utah Hospital Association agrees, and offers a strategy that might help curb the trend. “As our population ages, we have a higher demand for healthcare workers and we need to start at an early age to make these careers attractive for a younger generation. The biggest workforce need in hospitals is nursing. But there are a lot of places nurses can work — the insurance industry, clinical settings, schools, and even independently. And those jobs often offer a lot more flexibility than a hospital. So healthcare systems need to find creative ways to be competitive.”
And, they need to do so quickly. The Utah Medical Education Council projects a fairly dire shortage of nurses over the next ten years if there are no changes in current trends. Certified Nurse Midwives, Clinical Nurse Specialists, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists, and Nurse Practitioners all face a shortage of anywhere from approximately three to 10 full-time nurses each year over the next ten years.
The good news is, Intermountain is working to reverse this trend by first recognizing what is causing it and then by being thoughtful with how we fix it. Here are some insights on both:
- Flexible scheduling. This is currently the top reason nurses leave their organization in the first year. The scheduling process requires clinicians to sign up for shifts eight weeks in advance, and there is very little flexibility to adjust the schedule once it is complete. The process for scheduling is cumbersome and relies heavily on a manual process. And certainly isn’t accommodating to any spontaneous weekend getaways.
- Candidate pipelines. This is basic supply and demand — there are more job openings than there are graduates. Healthcare organizations need to be future-focused in workforce planning and have stronger connections with high schools, colleges, and training centers to recruit future healthcare workers.
- High tech. Healthcare has been slow to adopt the use of technology for both recruitment and scheduling. We have a lot to learn from other industries like Uber, Google and AirBnB, which will also help us attract younger, more tech savvy workers.
- Timely orientation. Currently it takes at least 12 weeks to orient a new nurse before he or she can work independently, but this isn’t always necessary. Education and onboarding doesn’t need to be a “one size fits all” approach.
- Cross training. Nurses and other clinicians tend to specialize, but with additional training and development, nurses could fill shifts in other departments and settings. Often tenure in a department is a factor in scheduling, but that model leads to nurses specializing in one area and limits cross training. Tenure might not be the best determination for scheduling.
While none of us have a crystal ball and predicting staffing shortages is never an exact science, it’s safe to say healthcare systems will benefit by becoming more proactive rather than reactive in terms of staffing. Above all, we must remember we have an ethical responsibility to ensure any staffing challenges do not compromise patient care, or unduly burden existing staff.