After more than a year and a half of battling the coronavirus pandemic, many health care workers are tired as the fight against COVID-19 enters a new phase.
As hospitals are once again inundated with patients amid a surging delta variant, health care leaders are balancing the demands of the present while also preparing for the future of the industry, according to a panel of health executives who participated in a recent U.S. News & World Report webinar, part of the ongoing Healthcare of Tomorrow virtual event series.
View video from the U.S. News & World Report webinar “Developing the Healthcare Workforce of Tomorrow”
Health care workers “are mission-driven, they are dedicated,” said Robyn Begley, CEO of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership and chief nursing officer and senior vice president for workforce at the American Hospital Association. “I will say, though, it’s difficult to go home for the day and become engaged in ‘normal life’ activities after seeing so much pain and loss.”
“The duration of this pandemic, 18 months, has been the thing that has been so wearing on our health care workers,” Begley said. “We know burnout was an issue prior to the pandemic, we know it has only gotten worse.” Still, she noted, so many clinicians and staff demonstrated their resilience and continued working, “often at significant personal sacrifice.”
Shaun Smith, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at New York-Presbyterian, noted that retaining health care workers and training the next generation of professionals are other major challenges, especially amid the pandemic, staff turnover and as an aging U.S. population increases demand for health services.
“I’m a little worried that the pandemic will actually scare people away,” said Smith, who recounted the demands put on staff in New York when the coronavirus surged there in the spring of 2020. “A lot of our efforts are around ensuring that we’re cultivating pipelines even at the high school level, because we really need to convince people that health care is a great and safe place to work.”
All across the country, addressing workforce and staffing challenges is a top priority for hospital leaders, according to panelists.
“Workforce is what I go to sleep worrying about and what I wake up worrying about,” Begley said. “Initially, it’s the short term: It’s recovery and resilience.” Beyond that, she noted, the focus will be on training and reskilling current workers and helping all staff members adjust to “the new normal.”
Creating a more diverse and inclusive health care workforce is also a major goal for many health system executives, the panel agreed.
“I think the pandemic really highlighted the fact that health disparities are real,” said Deborah Grimes, system vice president and chief diversity officer at Ochsner Health in Louisiana. Understanding why those disparities exist – and how to address them – requires asking a number of questions, Grimes said. “Your care delivery practitioners and your leadership – does it look like the community that you’re serving? And a lot of times that answer is no,” she said. “What are we going to do to close that gap?”
Part of the solution has to do with recruitment from more diverse communities and places like historically black colleges and universities, according to Grimes. It also involves unconscious bias training, mentorship and improved professional development programs, among other initiatives.
“Inclusion cannot happen without a strategy and a commitment from everyone,” Grimes said, “and I think a lot of times we think of diversity as representation and a standalone thing. But it will not survive, and it will not thrive, if we don’t really lean into this idea of inclusion.”
Advances in technology and new demands from health consumers are also forcing hospitals and health systems to change who and how they hire. “When we talk to our facilities, our clients, some of the things that they have been struggling with trying to address for the last several years (include) patient access, how to be more patient-centered, how to manage costs, how to really make the move to more of a value-based care model,” said Aamer Mumtaz, vice president of operations at CareRev, a health care labor platform that connects hospitals and systems with health professionals.
“There’s a challenge we have in the short term with a limited amount of supply,” Mumtaz said, and “there are things we can do right now” to increase the clinical workforce pool. One potential solution: use technology to identify real-time staffing needs and match them with workers to “improve flexibility in how and where professionals are able to work,” Mumtaz said.
Leaders are looking to improve pipelines to health care careers by getting into classrooms and speaking to students as early as middle school. But while expanding the pipeline is important, so, too, is looking internally at the existing workforce and identifying opportunities for growth among current employees.
“We also need to be innovative with the staff that we have,” Grimes said. “We have a lot of employees who are in entry-level positions that are high-performing in those positions.”
According to Begley, “time and money definitely are two of the biggest barriers, but we have excellent potential within our own organizations right now.”
Smith also emphasized the need to advance the industry in terms of technology, as well as ensuring that the workforce is not “left behind.”
“Whether or not we’re ready, the world’s moving,” Smith said. “If you’re purchasing your groceries online, your clothing online, our consumers are expecting that in hospitals.” In turn, he adds: The industry must ensure patients have easy access to hospitals and physicians.