Hospital Staff Shortages: What Units Face the Biggest Challenges?

Hospital Staff Shortages: What Units Face the Biggest Challenges?

As we prepare to mark National Hospital Week 2024, the nation’s hospitals and healthcare centers continue to struggle with a nationwide shortage of nurses and clinicians. Moreover, some units have been harder hit than others, too — in a way that can affect the entire organization. Uncover what facility leaders should know about the units most at risk from today’s hospital staff shortages, and what they can do combat it.

What to Know: Hospital Staff Shortages Today

The staffing shortage continues to affect all corners of healthcare, with a recent report finding that almost two in three hospitals and health systems have ran at reduced capacity during the past year. What’s more, those shortages have caused a whopping 70% of surveyed facilities to board patients in the emergency department or the post-anesthesia care unit (PSCU). 

Making matters worse? The shortage includes not just nurses and doctors, but other essential workers like techs and lab workers. “I’m not sure that there are many roles in the hospital right now that are easy to fill,” as Becky Hultberg, the president and CEO of the Hospital Association of Oregon, told Chief Healthcare Executive®.

Additionally, the effects of those hospital staff shortages are as wide ranging as they are disruptive. Almost every hospital or health center surveyed in the report — a whopping 98% — said that they’ve attempted “multiple strategies” to retain and attract workers. Nine out of 10 say they’ve raised pay, and more than half have responded with signing and retention bonuses.

For many of the nation’s larger health systems, though, many of these increases have only come after disruptive union strikes. What’s more, the benefits of raising salaries may be more effective in some parts of a facility or network than in others. Some units may benefit more from hiring more aides than another specialist, for example. 

What Hospital Units Are Most Impacted by Shortages in 2024?

Effectively addressing hospital staff shortages requires understanding where to focus. Just as some regions suffer more damage than others, so do some specialties and departments face greater challenges in staffing. While each facility’s specific circumstances are different, there are a few nationwide trends affecting some units more or less universally. 

#1: Med/Surg

The Challenge: As the unit that usually contains most of a facility’s beds, med/surg is almost always a high-needs department. In the best of times, that’s not helped by a perceived stigma that it’s considered entry level and extremely demanding. As a result, it can be tough to not just fill med/surg positions, but keep them staffed.

Fast Fact: Hospital staff shortages have become so intense in many medical/surgical units that employers are rapidly expanding virtual services in those departments.

The Takeaway: Since med/surg nurses handle more patients than other specialties, providing additional support — more robust float pools, for instance, or a more reliable network of dedicated contingency workers — can help alleviate pressure on core staff and keep turnover under control.

#2: Emergency

The Challenge: Fast-paced and high-stakes, the emergency department has been notoriously difficult to staff for decades. However, the pandemic only intensified hospital staff shortages with growing challenges like increased patient wait times. Today, the need for understaffed facilities to board patients in emergency units is compounding things further.

Key Quote: “Hospitals must provide care to people who arrive in the emergency room,” as dozens of organizations including the American College of Emergency Physicians, American Medical Association, and American Nurses Association in a 2022 joint letter to the President of the United States. “No region in the U.S. has been spared the consequences of an acute nursing shortage in the ER.”

No region in the U.S. has been spared the consequences of an acute nursing shortage in the ER.

The Takeaway: The letter offers some innovative solutions for extending ER resources, including regional care coordination among different providers and making greater use of other clinicians like aides and phlebotomists to provide rote care needs. For instance, tasks such as drawing blood and starting IVs. Discover our own insights into boosting retention here.

#3: Step-Down / PCU

The Challenge: Step-down/progressive care is yet another unit facing growing hospital staff shortages today. However, there’s a good reason why step-down has become one of the most in-demand specialties among travelers. With the wide range of complex conditions that they treat — often involving multiple comorbidities and specialized recovery plans — step-down staff must be highly versatile. That makes them tough to find in some areas (and tough to afford in others).

The Takeaway: The period of immediate discharge is essential for achieving positive outcomes and avoiding complications. Additionally, partnering with a dedicated travel staffing provider helps to ensure that a facility has the step down staff they need with minimum delay.

#4: Critical Care / ICU

The Challenge: Like step-down nurses, critical care nurses must be highly skilled and knowledgeable of a wide range of conditions and interventions. On top of that, though, their environment is often much more intense, with a greater use of sophisticated equipment and a frequent need to make life-saving decisions.

It can be tough to find nurses that fit the bill — and where supply is high, so is the competition (and the price). Turnover in ICUs is higher than in many other units, as well. In addition, the ICU’s high level of specialized skill doesn’t offer as many opportunities for aides and other workers to fill in.

Key Quote: “Workforce planning in critical care units is essential as it enables managers to adequately allocate staff with the right staff skill mix for better patient outcomes,” write the authors of an international study on critical care nurse staffing.

The Takeaway: An ICU nurse’s responsibilities — and burden of care — can change dramatically from one hour to the next. To help alleviate this pressure, employers can partner with contingency staffing firms to provide fast fill-ins when needed.

Additionally, the study authors recommend implementing the team nursing model to better spread skills throughout the ICU unit.

Help Ease Hospital Staff Shortages Now

With no end in sight to America’s hospital staff shortages, it’s time for employers to get proactive in their solutions. At CareerStaff, we’re standing by to help you do just that with a full suite of tailored contingency staffing solutions, healthcare managed services (MSP), and more.

Contact us today to find out how our Joint Commission-Certified solutions can help your organization — or request workers now.