In December, the CDC updated its policy guidance to address a surging wave of healthcare staffing shortages caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, staffing shortages will likely occur due to HCP exposures, illness, or need to care for family members at home,” the agency advised. “Healthcare facilities must be prepared for potential staffing shortages and have plans and processes in place to mitigate these.”
These shortages were already causing hardship for facilities and communities in many parts of the United States. That situation has only gotten more dire as the pandemic continues to spread almost unabated in many communities. Facilities that aren’t yet struggling with retaining the workers they need still must prepare for likely shortages to come.
The CDC also emphasizes the importance of addressing this shortage not just for the continuity of care but also the safety and wellbeing of essential workers: “Maintaining appropriate staffing in healthcare facilities is essential to providing a safe work environment for healthcare personnel (HCP) and safe patient care,” the agency warned in its update.
Ways to Mitigate Upcoming Healthcare Staffing Shortages
But how can facilities hope to stay fully staffed in the face of potential healthcare staffing shortages? According to the CDC guidance — as prepared by the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Division of Viral Diseases — there are immediate steps that healthcare facilities can and should take today to at least mitigate the. These include:
Healthcare employers and facilities must, at a minimum, make sure they clearly understand their specific staffing needs for the upcoming year. Specifically, they must have a clear idea of the “minimum number of staff needed to provide a safe work environment and safe patient care.”
Adjust staff schedules and rotate shifts in a way that better supports active patient care and de-emphasizes lower priority tasks — but do so with an eye on your worker’s mental wellbeing.
Keep your workers in the loop. The CDC recommends “communicating with HCP about actions the facility is taking to address shortages and maintain patient and HCP safety and providing resources to assist HCP with anxiety and stress.”
Encourage workers to let you know of any issues affecting their ability to report to work, especially problems related to social or financial issues like transportation or housing.
Cancel non-essential procedures and visits and shift the personnel usually allocated to those areas to support patient care activities. (Make sure to provide training and orientation as needed.)
If appropriate, ask your workers to put off taking elective time off for the moment — but also note that the effect this may have on their mental health, and the need to rotate those workers out efficiently before risking burnout.
Make sure you’ve Identified all sources of additional healthcare workers available in your city and state, including emergency waivers or licensure changes that could expand your pool of potential hires. This includes “local healthcare coalitions, federal, state, and local public health partners (e.g., public health emergency preparedness and response staff)” so that you can “identify additional HCP (e.g., hiring additional HCP, recruiting retired HCP, using students or volunteers), when needed.”
Identify alternate care sites by working with the community and local authorities to understand what care sites are accepting infected patients.
Another method for mitigating the effects of the healthcare staffing shortage is to make improvements to your culture to better retain staff you already have. The idea is to help make it both safe and fulfilling for them to continue to work in their environment.
That could mean balancing stricter safety protocols (which should now have been in place for almost a year) and the need to ask staff to work more shifts with the dangers of burnout or losing workers to better opportunities — which many don’t lack, given the intense demand for healthcare professionals that’s been intensified by the pandemic.
In an article for the SHRM, Tamara Lytle describes the value of a “culture of engagement” with “a focus on camaraderie within departments.” One model is the use of a decision-tree approach to addressing problems to encourage workers to report serious issues like quarantine violations or safety lapses “without fear of repercussions.”
As a last resort, the CDC also provides options to reduce the quarantine restrictions for workers who may have contacted an infected person, while pointing out that facilities “should understand that there might be additional transmission risks posed by their approach. These plans should not be implemented until facilities are using crisis standards.” (Emphasis ours.)
CDC Recommends The Use of Contingency Strategies
But before you hit the crisis button, there is another solution that could go far toward making sure your facility withstands the upcoming healthcare staffing shortage.
“When staffing shortages are anticipated, healthcare facilities and employers, in collaboration with human resources and occupational health services, should use contingency capacity strategies to plan and prepare for mitigating this problem,” as the CDC advises early in its updated guidance.
Contingency staffing and its power to allow for a more flexible and effective workforce has been an important part of the healthcare industry for decades. Especially in the past year, its use has skyrocketed in the wake of Covid-19 with the accelerated use of flex workers like travel and per diem nurses and locum tenens doctors.
In making the recommendation to utilize contingency strategies and resources, the CDC is echoing the advice not just of other health officials, but many other observers from the private sector. As StubHub founder Jeff Fluhr recently wrote at TechCrunch, the pandemic only “brought into focus a problem that has long been simmering in healthcare: The movement of labor is highly inefficient.”
Networks of contingency workers help providers not only find the professionals they need to meet flex their workforce up or down in relation to seasonal spikes, illnesses or other challenges. It helps “provide relief to hospitals by shifting a larger portion of clinician labor from a fixed cost to a variable cost,” Fluhr added, pointing out the value of this shift to a facility’s budget.
“Hospitals would have a smaller number of permanent employees and a larger number of temporary contingent workers,” he continued. “When demand drops, hospitals would use fewer contingent clinicians. When demand rises, they could tap into the marketplace to bring on more capacity.”
Meet The Challenge of Healthcare Staffing Shortage With CareerStaff
At CareerStaff Unlimited, we specialize in offering the contingency nurses and clinicians you need to meet the many challenges presented by the healthcare staffing shortage. For more details on how our healthcare managed services solutions can help your facility, contact us today to set up a free consultation with a CareerStaff expert.