COVID-19 Pandemic Exacerbated Healthcare Workforce Challenges

Between March and April 2020, the healthcare industry lost 1.5 million workers, exacerbating healthcare workforce challenges and staffing shortages.

May 05, 2022 – The COVID-19 pandemic intensified healthcare workforce challenges, leading to significant staffing shortages, increased healthcare worker burnout, and other hurdles that will likely persist after the pandemic, according to a report from HHS.

The report from the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) combines data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, highlighting how the pandemic has impacted the hospital and outpatient clinician workforce.

Workforce shortages among physician practices and hospitals were a concern before the pandemic, according to the report. Experts had predicted future shortages even without the added pressures and repercussions of COVID-19. For example, the aging workforce and limited availability of training are expected to drive shortages in the nursing sector in particular.

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened workforce challenges as organizations faced increased demand for patient care, including testing, immunizations, and treatment for the coronavirus. As many healthcare workers struggled to keep up with this demand, other staff were furloughed or saw their hours reduced due to delays in non-urgent care and procedures.

Additionally, between 15 and 25 percent of healthcare employees reported in May 2020 that they had been unable to work in the past four weeks because their employer closed or lost business due to the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, healthcare workers contracting the virus also contributed to staffing shortages. This may continue to impact the workforce in the future due to the lingering health effects of long COVID, the report noted.

Between March and April 2020, the healthcare industry lost 1.5 million workers. Employment rose again during summer 2020 and has since seen a gradual recovery. However, staffing shortages varied by setting. As of December 2021, ambulatory healthcare services saw an overall increase of 241,800 employees, while hospitals and nursing facilities lost 32,900 and 145,600 employees.

Hospitals reported having staffing shortages more often during surges of COVID-19 cases, including the Delta and Omicron variant surges.

The HHS report referenced data from the Office of Inspector General (OIG), which found that higher-than-normal turnover rates were a driving factor behind staffing shortages. In addition, hospitals reported that staffing shortages impacted patient care and staff mental health.

In response to the workforce shortages, hospitals frequently turned to short-term contract staff who could fill temporary gaps. For example, the use of travel nurses increased by 35 percent in 2020, with experts projecting that this trend will continue.

The use of travel nurses has led to some concerns, though. Travel nurses tend to make more money and have more schedule flexibility than staff nurses. Before the pandemic, staff nurses made around $1,400 a week, while travel nurses made between $5,000 and $20,000 a week during the pandemic.

Many nurses have left their positions due to inadequate compensation. The pay differences between staff and travel nurses may negatively impact the morale of staff nurses, the report noted. In addition, staff nurses may have to teach travel nurses about hospital operations, which can add to responsibilities and lead to burnout.

Between June and September 2020, more than 75 percent of healthcare workers reported experiencing stress, anxiety, frustration, and burnout—some of the top reasons nurses consider leaving the workforce.

The federal government has offered financial support to hospitals and provider groups throughout the pandemic, which aimed to stabilize the healthcare delivery system and create some relief for the workforce.

For example, CMS added 1,000 new Medicare Graduate Medical Education (GME) residency slots to help address labor shortages.

In addition, HHS introduced the Provider Relief Funds to help healthcare professionals who experienced revenue losses during the pandemic.

The report stressed that continued federal support through policies and funding is necessary to stabilize the healthcare workforce.

Creating a reliable pipeline for medical supplies, improving training in medical education programs, and optimizing existing workforce development programs will help hospitals and other sectors avoid future workforce shortages, the report concluded.

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