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Workforce Challenges Demand Big Thinking

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For the past two years, hospital leaders in California and throughout the nation have risen to meet perhaps the greatest test of their careers — a collective and effective response to a deadly pandemic that has killed millions worldwide. 

Yet there is no rest for the weary. Just as the clinical COVID-19 challenges begin to wane — thanks to vaccinations and other protective measures — another great threat to patients and communities has materialized: A depleted health care workforce that will take years to rebuild to pre-pandemic levels. 

Early data suggest that, nationally, health care worker ranks are down nearly 20%. That’s more than half a million people who have left health care employment for reasons that range from unexpected retirements and turnover due to sheer exhaustion and depression to choosing a new, non-health care career, to layoffs resulting from failure to comply with vaccine mandates. 

Recent news sheds further light on the magnitude of this problem. Earlier this month, health care consulting firm Kaufman Hall released the results of a poll that show a likelihood of permanent changes to the workforce. Among the poll’s highlights related to workforce: 

  • 100% of survey respondents face issues with clinical staff, including burnout, difficulty filling vacancies, wage inflation, and high turnover rates. 
  • 92% are having difficulties attracting and retaining support staff despite almost 90% having increased base salaries. 

The efforts to replenish hospital workers will further strain organizations that have lost billions of dollars in resources for patient care due to the pandemic.  

Kevin Holloran, senior director at Fitch Ratings, expects a permanent increase in salary and wages to decrease hospitals’ bottom lines by a percentage point. “Labor shortages are management’s top one, two and three priorities at the moment,” he said. “It is absolutely a chronic problem.” 

Also, this week, a new report from Moody’s highlights the financial troubles hospitals will have in returning to pre-pandemic margins, mainly because of nursing shortages. 

“These labor shortages are driving up costs for hospitals and hospital systems…” the Moody’s report states. “Rising costs will make it difficult for hospitals to rebuild margins to pre-COVID levels.” 

 The labor market in health care and non-health care sectors has shifted dramatically. Workers — all of us — are re-evaluating our lives, our work, and how we spend our time. Employers, and hospitals in particular, must invest in strategies to stop the outflow, retain current workers, and ensure that hospitals are among the best places to work. That is a tall order given the financial mayhem wrought by this pandemic, but essential to the future of health care. 

That’s why CHA is thinking big when it comes to addressing workforce challenges — because repair will take a decade and will require collaboration among employers, workers, schools, colleges and universities, licensing entities, and so many more. Ahead of the 2022 legislative session, CHA is developing a series of proposals focused on partnerships among all who recognize the enormity of the task before us and the need to protect the health care of all Californians. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson of this pandemic is that the actions of any one individual can have a profound impact on their families, their communities, their state, and indeed, the world. 

The same is true when it comes to recovering from this crisis — we will only succeed if everyone steps up to do their part in supporting California’s health care workers – now and into the future.