Healthcare Staffing Shortages: A Clinical Perspective

It’s been more than two years since WHO first declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. With a dramatic influx of patients to hospitals, changing regulations, and increased on-unit staffing shortages, many nurses are justifiably exhausted and burnt out, facing overwork and low morale. 

A significant number of clinical staff have left the nursing field entirely, leaving healthcare facilities to rely increasingly on agency and temporary staffing. Staffing shortages like these can unduly impact women working in healthcare, due to gender imbalances in staffing, pay disparities, and excess emotional and cognitive labor in addition to their assigned daily responsibilities. And, regardless of gender, a Kaiser Family Foundation/The Washington Post frontline healthcare workers survey conducted in 2021 yielded sobering results, with 62% of healthcare worker respondents saying that worry or stress related to COVID-19 had negatively impacted their mental health. 

This was particularly true for young healthcare workers (defined here as ages 18 to 29 years old), as 75% of those respondents reported worry or stress related to COVID-19. In fact, nearly 13% of this same demographic reported they had at least 10 patients in their direct care die from COVID-19 by early 2021.

In a field where empathy and compassion are some of the most valuable skills, compassion fatigue can lead to dangerous consequences, including medical errors and healthcare inefficiency. But that’s exactly what is happening to many healthcare workers who have faced tremendous challenges in recent years. And it’s time for change.  

What might the future look like? 

A 2021 survey of 570 nurses and nursing students conducted by Cross Country Healthcare and Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing found that, based on their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • 34% said staffing levels and approaches need to change in the future
  • 69% believe that national licensure would have benefited the United States
  • 85% said healthcare facilities should improve cross-training (between nurses and other staff) to adapt to crisis surge events
  • 70% agree that facilities will need to improve their use of staff resources

Shifts like those mentioned above would help bring the nursing field back to baseline. But what kinds of catalysts do these front-line nurses foresee to not only stabilize the field, but help improve low morale and burnout?

  • 81% recommended increasing pay rates and incentives to attract and retain nursing staff
  • 73% pointed to the benefits of flexible scheduling for nurses

These kinds of positive changes may make the difference between a nursing field that is thriving versus merely surviving — now and in a post-pandemic future. 

The importance of gratitude

Many full-time staff who go into nursing for reasons other than a steady paycheck are caregivers by nature. They want to care for others, and their work in a hospital setting helps them to do just that, while ensuring they are doing everything they can to make a patient’s time with them a good stay with the best outcomes possible.

In spite of everything these staff have been through in the past two years, and all the changes they’ve had to face and adaptations they’ve had to make, the reality is that most are still coming to work each day, delivering that exceptional care that patients have come to expect.

This commitment and professionalism are why it’s so critical — for patients, vendors, and even hospital organizations themselves — to both acknowledge and support nursing staff. With staff morale low, the importance of acknowledging extraordinary care by nursing care teams —as The DAISY Award For Extraordinary Nurses (The DAISY Award) seeks to — cannot be understated. 

By encouraging regular recognition, those who interact with nurses can simultaneously encourage continued excellence from those on the frontlines carrying some of the largest burdens in healthcare.

Empower the patient, lighten the load

Staff overwhelm is real, but digital health technology can help. The pandemic has ushered in with it a heightened importance of soft skills — both cognitive and emotional — like flexibility, adaptability, and critical thinking. However, the pandemic has also brought with it severe compassion fatigue for many nursing staff. 

Gratitude is crucial in this setting, but digital health technology can help take it all a step further. To decrease compassion fatigue, patient engagement platforms can take some of the more rote tasks away from healthcare workers. This helps patients take a leading role in their acute care stay — assisting staff by assisting themselves. 

Areas where technology can assist include:

  • Patient education
  • Room repair
  • Housekeeping 
  • Dietary needs 
  • Spiritual care

By making it easy for patients to reach out for necessities, healthcare organizations can remove the need to rely on nursing staff for the same requirements. Additionally, when a request is sent to an ancillary team via health technology, it helps frontline nursing staff foster a team approach for their work. When staff and patients are effectively engaging around patient engagement technology, the whole care team can rally around the patient in a seamless fashion, with each working to the best of their ability.

For nurses, who rely on their critical thinking capabilities and are suffering from compassion fatigue, empowering the patient to lean in and take a more proactive role also helps to alleviate some of the cognitive burden on their nurse. This enables nurses to tap into and focus on their critical thinking skill sets and continue to provide exceptional care.

The bottom line

In light of the recent healthcare staffing shortage, many organizations have turned to agency and travel staff to fill their schedules. Since these particular staff may be new to the field or the organization, it is incredibly important to ensure a patient has what they need and for staff to be more proactively engaged in the entire process.

With staff burnout high and frontline staff morale low, there is all the more reason to seize any opportunity to provide patients with self service and other digital health technologies. 

By putting patients in the driver’s seat and helping to free up a nurse’s time for higher-level tasks, technology can act as a true partner at a moment when patients, staff, and healthcare organizations need one the most.

This guest post was written by Carrie Hallock, Vice President of Clinical Excellence at Get Well.