The healthcare workforce shortage continues to present critical issues for hospitals and physician practices alike. According to one analysis, approximately 100,000 registered nurses left the field in 2021, and another study estimates that four years from now, 21% of physicians will be eligible to retire. Furthermore, the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of 100,000 physicians nationwide.
These ongoing challenges, brought to light by the pandemic, are being further complicated by inflation, a decrease in resources and increased demand for healthcare workers, as well as the need to provide higher wages and more benefits in the effort to retain and recruit staff.
Georgia’s healthcare leaders are constantly looking for strategies and solutions to address the workforce shortage at both the hospital system and physician practice level. In a discussion with two of those leaders, Dr. Deep Shah, primary care physician and managing partner at Gwinnett Clinic, and Laura Dannels, chief talent officer and vice president of talent management for Wellstar Health System, some general solutions were identified:
- Offering programs that focus on wellness and work/life balance
- Offering more flexible schedules
- Providing career development paths for staff at all levels
- Providing cross-training opportunities and flexible staffing models so team members can fulfill other duties when necessary
- Using technology to grow and develop team members
Since one of the biggest reasons for the workforce shortage is tied to burnout, healthcare leaders are more focused on programs that support employee needs. Those can include Employee Assistance Programs, mental health support, flexible scheduling for a better work/life balance and technology advances that will improve workflow and streamline training.
As a primary care physician and practice operator, Dr. Shah says “The question I ask myself everyday is how do I support my group and other groups like us in continuing to provide a level of care that we know patients need, without burning out our doctors and staff?”
For independent practices like his, providing the type of changes clinical staffs are looking for takes into account areas that may not need large capital investments more readily found in a hospital system.
“We try to adjust our templates to provide the positions with enough time,” he says. “We are trying to work on our insurance contracts to support the kind of primary care that we need, and we are talking to our physicians on a regular basis about what’s working for them.”
Communicating with staff at every level can also be easier in a practice setting. “I think it’s surprising versus a hospital and certainly other sectors to know how much a small physician practice like ours gives staff access to their managers,” Dr. Shah says. “We’re in constant communication with them, and because we work together all day to care for patients, it’s a fairly informal environment for them to be open with us about what they need, what challenges they face and what they’re asking us to provide. The question is whether we have the financial resources to always give it or not.”
From a hospital perspective, thinking differently about workforce talent can play an important role in retention, including providing staff with internal mobility opportunities.
“Development is a top priority of the organization,” says Wellstar’s Laura Dannels, “and we expect all of our leaders to work with every team member to build an individual development plan.” For nursing, Wellstar has completed talent planning for all Nurse Director, Executive Director, AVP and CNO roles. “The talent pool includes any nurses who may be a fit for one of these roles in the next five years,” she adds. “And we will soon be expanding this to less senior levels within nursing.”
Focusing on the nursing shortage has led to some innovative programs as well. In some healthcare settings, incentives to attract and retain nurses go beyond offering more flexible schedules and higher wages and may even include student loan forgiveness programs. Other benefits now include wellness programs and mental health support. Wellstar Health System has even created wellness rooms where clinicians can take physical and mental breaks during shifts.
In addition, Wellstar created an internal agency “to provide more flexibility for candidates where nurses and respiratory therapists can take on a 13-week contract at any of our inpatient Wellstar facilities,” says Dannels. Initially, she explains, a candidate commits to a 13-week contract, but once the 13-week contract is completed, candidates are then able to commit to a shorter length contract of 8 weeks. “We have received great feedback from candidates to date for the flexibility it means in their lives.”
Recruiting Talent at All Levels
Across Georgia, attracting healthcare workers means creating talent pipelines. These efforts include practices and hospitals working collaboratively with medical schools, nursing schools, specialty training programs and even high schools. It’s not a surprise that younger people have new expectations, and that was made even more obvious during the pandemic.
“The newer physicians want a sustainable life,” Dr. Shah says. “They love taking care of patients, and most of them have entered the medical field for the sole purpose of providing excellent care without any secondary or ulterior goals. At the same time, they want to be present for their family and have a satisfying personal life.”
Dr. Shah says those two goals can be at odds and can result in a drop in physician productivity. “We have to find a way to reconcile those competing interests in the lives of the physicians if we want to keep really bright people in the field of medicine and attract top students,” he says. “We try to coach our staff and newer physicians on how not to sacrifice too much of yourself for any one thing – be it your job or your family – but allow those things to provide a foundation for you to live a full, happy life.”
Another aspect of recruiting talent is providing opportunities for high school students to learn more about the healthcare field. For example, several teams at Wellstar partner with local school districts across their footprint to offer summer camps, careers days, fairs and expos to encourage career exploration and development. In addition to providing a series of nursing and high school camps last summer for 10th-12th-grade students, “this fall,” Dannels says, “we have worked closely with the high schools in our service area to provide opportunities to engage in experiential work-based learning, clinical hours for surgical tech and CNA certificate programs, and employment opportunities for high school seniors.” The hospital system currently has 40 students working in nursing support roles.
These staffing solutions are among many constantly being developed by healthcare leaders. And as the landscape continues become even more complex, experts agree that short-term solutions won’t be enough to address workforce shortages. Making some fundamental changes in every aspect of the care model will be instrumental in creating long-term solutions.
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The “Seeking Solutions to Workforce Shortages” article was based on a panel discussion at the 2022 Health Connect South conference. With attendance from decision-makers, innovators, and next-generation leaders, Health Connect South creates a platform for collaboration and networking among those who are shaping the future of healthcare. The event features keynote speakers, panel discussions, breakout sessions, and opportunities for attendees to connect with peers and thought leaders across the spectrum of healthcare. Health Connect South can provide healthcare providers with valuable insights into the latest trends and innovations in the industry.