Evaluating Healthcare Workforce Shortages – and Efforts to Address Them

Evaluating Healthcare Workforce Shortages – and Efforts to Address Them

The past three years have been rife with turmoil in the staffing sector of the healthcare industry. A recently published study found that more than 145,000 healthcare workers left the industry from 2021 through 2022, with variance in role, specialty, and geography.

Much of this stems from the COVID-19 pandemic, as so many providers were on the front lines, working in direct contact with vulnerable populations, exposing them to negative effects, including fear of infection, untenable hours, depression, and elevated stress.

It has also been suggested that many providers have exited the industry due to skyrocketing burnout (with rates that doubled between 2019 and 2021), challenges converting to telehealth, and lost revenue associated with the growing scarcity of in-person appointments.

Regardless of the reason, these driving forces have stirred up considerable movement in healthcare staffing circles (and in states) to address the issue.

Take the obvious example first. Less than 10 days ago, Kaiser Permanente settled on a new labor agreement with the union representing upwards of 85,000 healthcare workers to end what has been called the largest healthcare worker strike in U.S. history.

The deal requires an increased minimum wage for certain employees in states where Kaiser operates, affords Kaiser staff an across-the-board 21-percent wage increase over four years, and includes provisions to protect workers from outsourcing, as well as streamlined training and hiring practices that help boost recruitment to battle staffing shortages.

The state of California has implemented something similar to address staffing shortages. Just last week, the Governor signed into law legislation that made the state the first in the country with a mandated higher minimum wage for healthcare workers. The new law provides for a gradual raise of the minimum wage for healthcare workers over the next several years from the current $15.50 per hour to $25 per hour.

The law is also estimated to translate to more than $10,000 per year in wage increases for about 450,000 of the state’s healthcare workers. The California service employees union praised the new law for “putting a stop to the hemorrhaging of the care workforce by ensuring healthcare workers can do the work they love and pay their bills.”

It has been suggested that staffing shortages may lead to decreased quality of care and increased medical errors. According to a 2022 study, 34 percent of doctors worldwide reported that medical errors increased when their units were short-staffed, while patient care can also be disrupted or delayed.

The big question now is: will more health systems, hospitals, and states act to better alleviate an ongoing exodus of providers from the field and a still-considerable shortage of healthcare workers, or will these problems persist into 2024?

The report I cited earlier about the droves of providers leaving healthcare proposed mitigating the impacts of staffing attrition by consolidating operations, more directly addressing burnout, and increasing hospital investment in technologies and services like telehealth to reduce facility costs and curtail readmissions.

It will be interesting to see if more resources and money are directed to these areas going forward. Patients and workers alike should probably keep their fingers crossed.

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Adam Brenman

Adam Brenman is a Federal Legislative Analyst at Zelis Healthcare. He previously served as Manager of Public Policy at WellCare Health Plans, where he led an analyst team in review, analysis, and development of advocacy materials related to state and federal legislation/regulatory guidance. He holds a master’s degree in Public Policy & Administration from Northwestern University and has also worked as a government affairs rep/lobbyist for a national healthcare provider association.

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