Healthcare Staff Shortages: 3 Ways Employers Are Adapting

illustration of a waiting room with red exclamination marks over different staff members representing healthcare staff shortages

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly had a ripple effect on the job market, and employers are still grappling with how to best adjust. You don’t have to look far to see headlines in the news about staffing issues and shortages across industries—and healthcare staffing is no exception. Simply put, the pandemic has put an additional layer of strain on a workforce that’s already being taxed by demographic shifts.

So what’s being done to help address this—and what could that mean for you? We’ve talked to healthcare professionals for more insight on these shortages and what employers are doing to adapt to the challenges they bring. Read on for more information about how organizations are working to address these problems throughout the healthcare system.

What’s causing healthcare staffing issues?

While COVID-19 has obviously taken a huge share of the spotlight recently, what can get overlooked is that the healthcare industry was already on course for at least some staffing strain. Nursing in particular has been dealing with a shortage of qualified candidates for many years, for a variety of reasons, including a lack of available nursing educators who can train the next generation.

According to a report from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, prior to the pandemic in 2019, nursing schools in the United States were unable to enroll over 80,000 qualified applicants due to insufficient faculty and program capacity.1 Another major underlying factor baked into today’s staffing challenges are demographic shifts. The massive baby boomer generation is aging out of the workforce and into the clinic for treatments of their own. Retiring healthcare professionals, combined with their generation’s greater need for medical services, have already set the stage for potential staffing trouble.

Despite the great need, it takes time to educate and train healthcare professionals in the specialized care they must deliver patients. While schools and employers were well aware of the demographic challenges ahead in the healthcare field and working to help meet that increased demand, an unexpected global pandemic has added additional pressure as turnover has increased.2 Some have opted for earlier-than-expected retirements, changed careers altogether or were forced to put their careers on hold to serve as primary caretakers—but no matter the exact reason for their departures, the additional staffing strain is evident.

Which healthcare roles are employers struggling to fill?

While it’s not easy to get a comprehensive view of nationwide healthcare staffing challenges at this time, there’s a lot to glean from the anecdotes of healthcare professionals in the field.

“All nursing roles and respiratory therapist roles are very difficult to staff,” says Albert Ho, founder of Healthcare Heroes. “Specialized nursing roles, such as emergency department and critical care are particularly hard to fill.”

Part of this is due to the time involved in training staff for these positions. “Emergency department orientation typically lasts 16 weeks, so there are limitations in terms of the capacity to onboard new staff quickly,” Ho adds.

Dental hygienist roles have also been difficult to fill since the pandemic, as the intimate contact involved in dental care has many reluctant to stay or join the profession.

“I’ve had more dental assistants and hygienists who wanted to work at the front desk than vice versa due to the perceived risk of exposure, despite the fact that we had PPE and medical-grade air purifiers,” reports Sina Amiri, vice president of business development at Zentist.

The isolation and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 have also increased the demand for mental health and behavioral medicine services.

“We’re seeing shortages in nearly all levels of healthcare staffing,” says Dr. Rajinder Chahal, founder of White Coat Remote. “Mental health positions are in particularly high demand.”

How employers are adapting to healthcare staff shortages

1. Referral bonuses & financial incentives

Ho says that financial motivations, like referral bonus programs for current employees and other bonus incentives, are one way organizations are trying to fill the gaps. While the details of how these incentives work will vary depending on the organization, typically, employees who refer qualified candidates for open jobs will receive a one-time bonus payment if their referral is hired on or clears a short probationary period.

While financial incentives like these don’t solve the macro problem of a shortage of qualified nurses overall, they can be a boon for those already in the field and open to leaving their current employer.

2. Increased use of telemedicine

The pandemic has raised the profile of telemedicine and virtual clinic visits, especially. But telemedicine has added benefits, as well. With telemedicine, where a patient meets with a doctor or nurse via video conference or phone, the accompanying staff in a normal clinic is much reduced. Plus, in areas where access to certain types of medical care is limited, a patient can find treatment in other locations.

“The rise of telemedicine is helping to bridge the gap by increasing access to care for patients from the safety and comfort of their own home while also offering better work-life balance for providers,” says Chahal.

The burnout factor is significant for many healthcare professionals, and numerous employers are adopting any measure that can better support their workers.

3. Recognition and appreciation initiatives

A pandemic is definitely a stressful moment in the healthcare system, one that employers must find ways to alleviate for their staff. Many organizations are stepping up with their recognition programs and employee appreciation efforts.

Ho says that free parking, free food and beverages, wellness seminars and administration Q&A sessions are all ways employers are trying to support and bolster their employees’ morale. While some of these may be more impactful than others (yet another pizza party isn’t going to fix everything, after all), savvy administrators understand that building a strong culture overall can help a weary team weather challenging times.

Is help on the way?

It’s undoubtedly a difficult period time in the healthcare field, and the professionals who’ve steadfastly kept providing care throughout the pandemic need reinforcement. If you think you have what it takes to fill the need for healthcare professionals, know that there are several options out there that would allow you to get started sooner than later. To learn more about these potential healthcare career pathways, check out our article “Exploring 12 Healthcare Jobs You Can Launch in 2 Years or Less.”

1“Nursing Faculty Shortage: Fact Sheet” American Association of Colleges of Nursing, September 20, 2020 [accessed February 2022] https://www.aacnnursing.org/news-information/fact-sheets/nursing-faculty-shortage
2Jeff Lagasse “Hospitals pay high turnover costs due to RNs leaving the profession” Healthcare Finance, October 15, 2021 [accessed February 2022] https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/hospitals-pay-high-turnover-costs-due-rns-leaving-profession 

About the author

Carrie Mesrobian

Carrie is a freelance copywriter at Collegis Education. She researches and writes articles, on behalf of Rasmussen University, to help empower students to achieve their career dreams through higher education.

Carrie Mesrobian

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