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Overcome Healthcare Workforce Challenges With Purpose, Innovation

The American Hospital Association’s (AHA) 2023 Health Care Workforce Scan examined the current state of the healthcare workforce with a deep dive into employment challenges across U.S. hospitals and health systems. The report provided recommendations to address major issues that healthcare organizations will face in the coming year.

Workforce issues are still one of the top concerns in the healthcare field since the COVID-19 pandemic, along with supply chain disruptions, inefficiencies, inequities, and the challenge of keeping up with technology.

The AHA examined three core challenges in this year’s Health Care Workforce Scan, sponsored by Relias:

  1. Reconnecting to purpose
  2. Providing resources to succeed in multiple care environments
  3. Recruiting, retention, and building employee pipeline

The AHA is a national membership organization that represents and serves hospitals, health systems and other healthcare organizations, clinical partners, health leaders, patients, and communities. It advocates for members on national health policy, legislative, regulatory, and judicial matters. It also provides education and information for healthcare leaders on current issues and trends.

Reconnecting to purpose

The AHA report acknowledged the critical shortage of healthcare workers, which has worsened in recent years with continuing high turnover and attrition. It called for supporting healthcare workers’ mental and physical well-being amidst significant demographic shifts, changing patient expectations, and reshaping the delivery of care.

To address these issues, the AHA recommended an overarching theme of “reconnecting to purpose.” The theme prioritizes creating work environments that “consistently support meaningful work and nurture relationship-building to reinspire workers to find the joy, satisfaction, and purpose that drew them to health care in the first place.”

In a time when significant obstacles and distractions threaten to remove focus from the primary reasons healthcare practitioners entered the field, reconnecting to purpose translates to a recentering of the fundamental mission and driving force of healthcare: to improve patients’ lives.

To carry out this goal, the AHA suggested healthcare organizations consider:

  • Creating and modeling a culture that reflects mission-driven values.
  • Implementing workplace practices that strengthen employee satisfaction, support self-care, and recommit to patient-centered care.
  • Ensuring that employees feel heard and valued.

Providing resources to succeed in multiple care environments

The AHA also highlighted the challenge of facilitating healthcare professionals’ success in a transformed, post-pandemic environment. Workers need support, training, and technology to successfully deliver care in new ways that may require different resources and considerations than before.

COVID-19 accelerated the transition to virtual care and increased the variety of care settings. Patients now receive treatment in their homes, outpatient clinics, community facilities, hospitals, and combinations of these options. As alternate delivery modes become the norm, healthcare organizations may need adaptations to ensure seamless, coordinated care delivery.

To carry out this goal, the AHA advised providers to:

  • Facilitate new skills and technologies and consider innovative strategies for workforce management.
  • Prioritize ways to bring care safely, effectively, and equitably to patients.

Recruiting, retention, and building employee pipeline

With the U.S. nursing workforce down more than 100,000 people between 2019 and 2022 (the largest decline in 40 years), staffing issues made the list as the AHA’s third core challenge for 2023. Healthcare workforce recruitment and retention must be priorities now to ensure high quality, safe patient care in the future.

High vacancy rates and the threat of more turnover have left the healthcare industry — and by extension, the U.S. patient population — vulnerable. In addition to managing personnel shortages, healthcare organizations must make their offerings more compatible with nurses’ lives and needs, both on and off the job. Changing the status quo is also critical to attract future healthcare workers to the profession.

“Healthcare leaders must go beyond merely ensuring organizational survival and begin fostering a real commitment to building thriving organizations with resilient workforces that deliver compassionate, high-quality care to the communities they serve,” affirmed Felicia Sadler, MJ, BSN, RN, CPHQ, LSSBB, Vice President, Quality at Relias.

The AHA encourages hospitals and health systems to evaluate:

  • Implementing multi-pronged strategies that include upskilling programs, on-the-job training, and expansion of nursing programs.
  • Adding more flexibility to roles and staffing to address diverse healthcare workforce challenges.
  • Offering creative benefits for employees, including nontraditional options such as affordable housing and childcare.

A perfect storm

The AHA aptly described the current healthcare landscape as a “perfect storm” in terms of employment demographics. It predicts a record number of job openings and a high number of retirees. At the same time, demand for services is increasing due to an aging patient population.

Centuries ago, philosopher Sun Tzu wrote, “In peace, prepare for war, in war, prepare for peace.” The best time to anticipate and prepare for a global crisis like COVID-19 is between crises, when urgency has decreased.

Applying the AHA guidance requires taking steps to gradually recover from the fallout of COVID-19. Organizations can leverage the disruption by working together to be prepared for the future. They now have an opportunity to rethink roles, relationships, and responsibilities with both employees and patient communities. These efforts can make them strong enough to withstand the unexpected.

Why purpose matters

In the continuing quest to keep patients safe and healthy, healthcare organizations need to make sure their employees are safe and healthy first. We all know the standard airline safety message that specifies that caregivers must “affix their own oxygen masks” before attending to those of others. The oxygen mask metaphor accurately describes the need for healthcare organizations to make sure employees’ well-being is taken care of first so they in turn can effectively care for others.

The AHA’s primary guidance for healthcare employers this year is to create a culture that fosters employee well-being and involves a top-to-bottom dedication to organizational culture. Specific objectives include:

  • Creating a culture that reflects mission-driven values.
  • Finding out what really matters to employees.
  • Strengthening satisfaction to reduce burnout.
  • Nurturing and embracing self-care.
  • Emphasizing the commitment to patient-centered care.

Specific tactics that support these objectives are employee feedback mechanisms, recognition, expressions of gratitude, autonomy, empowerment, shared governance models, and inclusion of self-care and well-being in employee evaluations and organizational metrics.

However, these tactics need to be part of an authentic campaign of dedication to employees that treats healthcare workers in accordance with their value to the organization. Policies, compensation, and employee development efforts need to align with messaging to gain the trust and loyalty of the staff, enhance employee satisfaction, and compete effectively to attract new grads and applicants.

Glimmers of hope

Despite prevalent healthcare workforce challenges, the AHA included several positive indicators in its report. Employment opportunities in healthcare continue to grow at a rapid pace, adding an estimated 2.6 million jobs by 2030. Licensed nurse practitioners increased by a record 12% over the past year. Home health will continue to boom with 17% projected growth in the five years ending in 2025, compared to 8% for healthcare overall. Of the top 30 jobs in the U.S., healthcare-related occupations comprise over half.

With so much opportunity in healthcare, the industry is primed for an evolution that will reshape how organizations succeed. Necessity will position the most agile organizations to leverage these opportunities. The best will bring the rewards of the profession up to par with what healthcare employees both demand and deserve.

AHA Board Chair Ronald Werft called for more adequate educational pathways to replace departing and retiring workers and to enable more new employees to enter the healthcare workforce. Education will be a key part of preparing more healthcare workers to enter the field, developing their skills, retaining them, and providing lifelong job satisfaction.


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