Healthcare workers are not returning to hospitals and nursing homes

https://mailchi.mp/f6328d2acfe2/the-weekly-gist-the-grizzly-bear-conflict-manager-edition?e=d1e747d2d8

The US healthcare sector added 64K jobs in February, an increase from recent months, but the gains were concentrated in provider offices and home health companies. Hospitals and nursing facilities, which have both struggled with widespread staffing shortages, saw more anemic job growth. In particular, nursing homes have lost 15 percent of their workforce, remaining significantly understaffed even though resident occupancy rates still lag pre-pandemic levels. This week, nursing home groups pushed back against President Biden’s call for minimum staffing levels, calling them unrealistic without federal funding.

The Gist: Hospital and nursing facility workers have taken on some of the most taxing and dangerous jobs during the pandemic, caring for the sickest patients while personally risking COVID infection. 

Healthcare workers are increasingly opting for safer, less intense jobs in outpatient care settings like physician offices, or are exiting direct patient care entirely. Even as the pandemic subsides, recruitment and retention of nurses and other caregivers will be of paramount importance, given rising vacancy rates and unabating staff shortages.

Nursing home staff shortages are worsening problems at overwhelmed hospitals

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/12/28/nursing-home-hospital-staff-shortages/

Nursing home staff shortages are worsening problems at overwhelmed hospitals  - The Washington Post

At the 390-bed Terrace View nursing home on the east side of Buffalo, 22 beds are shut down. There isn’t enough staff to care for a full house, safely or legally.

That means some fully recovered patients in the adjacent Erie County Medical Center must stay in their hospital rooms, waiting for a bed in the nursing home. Which means some patients in the emergency department, who should be admitted to the hospital, must stay there until a hospital bed opens up. The emergency department becomes stretched so thin that 10 to 20 percent of arrivals leave without seeing a caregiver — after an average wait of six to eight hours, according to the hospital’s data.

“We used to get upset when our ‘left without being seen’ went above 3 percent,” said Thomas Quatroche, president and chief executive of the Erie County Medical Center Corp., which runs the 590-bed public safety net hospital.

Nursing home bed and staff shortages were problems in the United States before the coronavirus pandemic. But the departure of 425,000 employees over the past two years has narrowed the bottleneck at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities at the same time that acute care hospitals are facing unending demand for services due to a persistent pandemic and staff shortages of their own.

With the omicron variant raising fears of even more hospitalizations, the problems faced by nursing homes are taking on even more importance. Several states have sent National Guard members to help with caregiving and other chores.

Hospitalizations, which peaked at higher than 142,000 in January, are rising again as well, reaching more than 71,000 nationally on Thursday, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. In some places, there is little room left in hospitals or ICUs.

About 58 percent of the nation’s 14,000 nursing homes are limiting admissions, according to a voluntary survey conducted by the American Health Care Association, which represents them. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 425,000 employees, many of them low-paid certified nursing assistants who are the backbone of the nursing home workforce, have left since February 2020.

“What we’re seeing on the hospital side is a reflection of that,” said Rob Shipp, vice president for population health and clinical affairs at the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania, which represents medical providers in that state. The backups are not just for traditional medical inpatients ready for follow-up care, he said, but psychiatric and other patients as well.

A handful of developmentally disabled patients at Erie County Medical Center waited as long as a year for placement in a group setting, Quatroche said. Medical patients recovered from illness and surgery who cannot go home safely may wait days or weeks for a bed, he said.

“I don’t know if everyone understands how serious the situation is,” Quatroche said. “You really don’t know until you need care. And then you know immediately.”

Remarkably, despite the horrific incidents of death and illness in nursing homes at the outset of the pandemic, more staff departures have come during the economic recovery. As restaurants and shops reopened and hiring set records, nursing homes continued to bleed workers, even as residents returned.

Nursing home staff shortages are worsening problems at overwhelmed hospitals  - The Washington Post

Nearly 237,000 workers left during the recovery, data through November show. No other industry suffered anything close to those losses over the same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Workers in the broader health-care industry have been quitting in record numbers for most of the pandemic, plagued by burnout, vulnerability to the coronavirus and poaching by competitors. Low-wage workers tend to quit at the highest rates, Labor Department data show, and nursing home workers are the lowest paid in the health sector, with nonmanagerial earnings averaging between $17.45 an hour for assisted living to $21.19 an hour for skilled nursing facilities, according to the BLS.

Nursing home occupancy fell sharply at the start of the pandemic, but inched back upward in 2021, according to the nonprofit National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care. One major force that held it back was worker shortages.

“Operators in the business have said we could admit more patients, but we cannot find the staff to allow that to happen,” said Bill Kauffman, senior principal at the organization.

Shortages have spawned fierce talent wars in the industry, Brookdale Senior Living Chief Executive Officer Cindy Baier said in a recent earnings call. When they don’t have enough workers, restaurants can reduce service hours and hospitals can cut elective surgeries, but nursing homes don’t have the option of eliminating critical services, she said. They must close beds.

“We are in the ‘people taking care of people’ business around-the-clock, 365 days a year,” she said.

Nursing homes tend to gain workers during a recession but can struggle to hire during expansions, according to an analysis of county-level data from the Great Recession recently published in the health care provision and financing journal Inquiry.

Steady income from their resident population and government programs such as Medicaid makes them recession-proof, and their low pay and challenging work conditions mean they’re chronically understaffed, said one of the study’s authors, Indiana University health-care economist Kosali Simon.

When recessions occur, nursing homes go on a hiring spree, filling holes in their staff with qualified workers laid off elsewhere.

“People during a recession may lose their construction jobs or jobs in retail sectors, and then look for entry-level positions at places like nursing homes where there is always demand,” Simon said.

Now, amid the Great Resignation” and the hot job market, the opposite is happening. In sparsely populated areas and regions where pay is lower, the problem is even worse.

The Diakonos Group, which operates 26 nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and group homes in Oklahoma, closed an 84-bed location for seniors with mental health needs in May “simply because we couldn’t staff it any longer,” said Chief Executive Officer Scott Pilgrim. Patients were transferred elsewhere, including Tulsa and Oklahoma City, he said.

The home in rural Medford, which depended entirely on Medicaid payments, “was never easy to staff, but once we started through covid and everything, our staff was just burned out.”

Diakonos boosted certified nursing assistants’ pay from $12 an hour and licensed practical nurses’ pay from $20 an hour, used federal and state assistance to offer bonuses and employed overtime, but workers kept leaving for better health-care jobs and positions in other industries, he said.

“I’ve never been able to pay what we ought to pay,” Pilgrim said. Eventually he began to limit admissions and eventually was forced to close.

“The hospitals are backed up,” he said. “They’re trying to find anywhere to send people. We get referrals from states all around us. The hospitals are desperate to find places to send people.”

In south central Pennsylvania, SpiriTrust Lutheran is not filling 61 of its 344 beds in six facilities because of the worker shortage, said Carol Hess, the company’s senior vice president.

“I have nurses who went to become real estate agents,” she said. “They were just burned out.”

Pay raises of $1 to $1.50 an hour and bonuses brought the lowest-paid workers to about $15 an hour, Hess said, and the company is planning a recruiting drive after Jan. 1. But the prognosis is still grim.

“We’re competing with restaurants for our dining team members,” Hess said. “We’re competing with other folks for cleaning and laundry and others.” In the area around Harrisburg where SpiriTrust employees live, some schools that turned out certified nurse assistants closed during the pandemic and haven’t reopened.

The nursing homes have begun borrowing licensed practical nurses from WellSpan Health, the nearby hospital system that discharges many of its patients to SpriTrust after they recover. About 15 have began their orientations this month, she said, and the two systems are collaborating to pay them.

The bed shortage is causing backups that can average several days in the hospital, said Michael Seim, the hospital system’s chief quality officer. That gives the hospitals an interest in helping any way they can, he said.

“We have between 80 and 100 patients waiting for some type of skilled care,” Seim said this month. The hospital has begun caring for more people at home, enrolling 400 people so far in a program that sends clinicians to check on them there. More than 90 percent have said they are happy with the program.

“I think the future of hospital-based care is partnerships,” Seim said. “It’s going to be health systems partnering across their service areas … to disrupt the model we have.”

The less-discussed consequence of healthcare’s labor shortage

How Could You Be Affected by the Healthcare Labor Shortage? - Right Way  Medical

The healthcare industry’s staffing shortage crisis has had clear consequences for care delivery and efficiency, forcing some health systems to pause nonemergency surgeries or temporarily close facilities. Less understood is how these shortages are affecting care quality and patient safety. 

A mix of high COVID-19 patient volume and staff departures amid the pandemic has put hospitals at the heart of a national staffing shortage, but there is little national data available to quantify the shortages’ effects on patient care. 

The first hint came last month from a CDC report that found healthcare-associated infections increased significantly in 2020 after years of steady decline. Researchers attributed the increase to challenges related to the pandemic, including staffing shortages and high patient volumes, which limited hospitals’ ability to follow standard infection control practices. 

“That’s probably one of the first real pieces of data — from a large scale dataset — that we’ve seen that gives us some sense of direction of where we’ve been headed with the impact of patient outcomes as a result of the pandemic,” Patricia McGaffigan, RN, vice president of safety programs for the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, told Becker’s. “I think we’re still trying to absorb much of what’s really happening with the impact on patients and families.”

An opaque view into national safety trends

Because of lags in data reporting and analysis, the healthcare industry lacks clear insights into the pandemic’s effect on national safety trends.

National data on safety and quality — such as surveys of patient safety culture from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality — can often lag by several quarters to a year, according to Ms. McGaffigan. 

“There [have been] some declines in some of those scores more recently, but it does take a little while to be able to capture those changes and be able to put those changes in perspective,” she said. “One number higher or lower doesn’t necessarily indicate a trend, but it is worth really evaluating really closely.”

For example, 569 sentinel events were reported to the Joint Commission in the first six months of 2021, compared to 437 for the first six months of 2020. However, meaningful conclusions about the events’ frequency and long-term trends cannot be drawn from the dataset, as fewer than 2 percent of all sentinel events are reported to the Joint Commission, the organization estimates.

“We may never have as much data as we want,” said Leah Binder, president and CEO of the Leapfrog Group. She said a main area of concern is CMS withholding certain data amid the pandemic. Previously, the agency has suppressed data for individual hospitals during local crises, but never on such a wide scale, according to Ms. Binder.  

CMS collects and publishes quality data for more than 4,000 hospitals nationwide. The data is refreshed quarterly, with the next update scheduled for October. This update will include additional data for the fourth quarter of 2020.

“It is important to note that CMS provided a blanket extraordinary circumstances exception for Q1 and Q2 2020 data due to the COVID-19 pandemic where data was not required nor reported,” a CMS spokesperson told Becker’s. “In addition, some current hospital data will not be publicly available until about July 2022, while other data will not be available until January 2023 due to data exceptions, different measure reporting periods and the way in which CMS posts data.”

Hospitals that closely monitor their own datasets in more near-term windows may have a better grasp of patient safety trends at a local level. However, their ability to monitor, analyze and interpret that data largely depends on the resources available, Ms. McGaffigan said. The pandemic may have sidelined some of that work for hospitals, as clinical or safety leaders had to shift their priorities and day-to-day activities. 

“There are many other things besides COVID-19 that can harm patients,” Ms. Binder told Becker’s. “Health systems know this well, but given the pandemic, have taken their attention off these issues. Infection control and quality issues are not attended to at the level of seriousness we need them to be.”

What health systems should keep an eye on 

While the industry is still waiting for definitive answers on how staffing shortages have affected patient safety, Ms. Binder and Ms. McGaffigan highlighted a few areas of concern they are watching closely. 

The first is the effect limited visitation policies have had on families — and more than just the emotional toll. Family members and caregivers are a critical player missing in healthcare safety, according to Ms. Binder. 

When hospitals don’t allow visitors, loved ones aren’t able to contribute to care, such as ensuring proper medication administration or communication. Many nurses have said they previously relied a lot on family support and vigilance. The lack of extra monitoring may contribute to the increasing stress healthcare providers are facing and open the door for more medical errors.

Which leads Ms. Binder to her second concern — a culture that doesn’t always respect and prioritize nurses. The pandemic has underscored how vital nurses are, as they are present at every step of the care journey, she continued. 

To promote optimal care, hospitals “need a vibrant, engaged and safe nurse workforce,” Ms. Binder said. “We don’t have that. We don’t have a culture that respects nurses.” 

Diagnostic accuracy is another important area to watch, Ms. McGaffigan said. Diagnostic errors — such as missed or delayed diagnoses, or diagnoses that are not effectively communicated to the patient — were already one of the most sizable care quality challenges hospitals were facing prior to the pandemic. 

“It’s a little bit hard to play out what that crystal ball is going to show, but it is in particular an area that I think would be very, very important to watch,” she said.

Another area to monitor closely is delayed care and its potential consequences for patient outcomes, according to Ms. McGaffigan. Many Americans haven’t kept up with preventive care or have had delays in accessing care. Such delays could not only worsen patients’ health conditions, but also disengage them and prevent them from seeking care when it is available. 

Reinvigorating safety work: Where to start

Ms. McGaffigan suggests healthcare organizations looking to reinvigorate their safety work go back to the basics. Leaders should ensure they have a clear understanding of what their organization’s baseline safety metrics are and how their safety reports have been trending over the past year and a half.

“Look at the foundational aspects of what makes care safe and high-quality,” she said. “Those are very much linked to a lot of the systems, behaviors and practices that need to be prioritized by leaders and effectively translated within and across organizations and care teams.”

She recommended healthcare organizations take a total systems approach to their safety work, by focusing on the following four, interconnected pillars:

  • Culture, leadership and governance
  • Patient and family engagement
  • Learning systems
  • Workforce safety

For example, evidence shows workforce safety is an integral part of patient safety, but it’s not an area that’s systematically measured or evaluated, according to Ms. McGaffigan. Leaders should be aware of this connection and consider whether their patient safety reporting systems address workforce safety concerns or, instead, add on extra work and stress for their staff. 

Safety performance can slip when team members get busy or burdensome work is added to their plates, according to Ms. McGaffigan. She said leaders should be able to identify and prioritize the essential value-added work that must go on at an organization to ensure patients and families will have safe passage through the healthcare system and that care teams are able to operate in the safest and healthiest work environments.

In short, leaders should ask themselves: “What is the burdensome work people are being asked to absorb and what are the essential elements that are associated with safety that you want and need people to be able to stay on top of,” she said.

To improve both staffing shortages and quality of care, health systems must bring nurses higher up in leadership and into C-suite roles, Ms. Binder said. Giving nurses more authority in hospital decisions will make everything safer. Seattle-based Virginia Mason Hospital recently redesigned its operations around nurse priorities and subsequently saw its quality and safety scores go up, according to Ms. Binder. 

“If it’s a good place for a nurse to go, it’s a good place for a patient to go,” Ms. Binder said, noting that the national nursing shortage isn’t just a numbers game; it requires a large culture shift.

Hospitals need to double down on quality improvement efforts, Ms. Binder said. “Many have done the opposite, for good reason, because they are so focused on COVID-19. Because of that, quality improvement efforts have been reduced.”

Ms. Binder urged hospitals not to cut quality improvement staff, noting that this is an extraordinarily dangerous time for patients, and hospitals need all the help they can get monitoring safety. Hospitals shouldn’t start to believe the notion that somehow withdrawing focus on quality will save money or effort.  

“It’s important that the American public knows that we are fighting for healthcare quality and safety — and we have to fight for it, we all do,” Ms. Binder concluded. “We all have to be vigilant.”

Conclusion

The true consequences of healthcare’s labor shortage on patient safety and care quality will become clear once more national data is available. If the CDC’s report on rising HAI rates is any harbinger of what’s to come, it’s clear that health systems must place renewed focus and energy on safety work — even during something as unprecedented as a pandemic. 

The irony isn’t lost on Ms. Binder: Amid a crisis driven by infectious disease, U.S. hospitals are seeing higher rates of other infections.  

“A patient dies once,” she concluded. “They can die from COVID-19 or C. diff. It isn’t enough to prevent one.”

Facing a “new normal” of higher labor costs

https://mailchi.mp/161df0ae5149/the-weekly-gist-december-10-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

The price of higher labor costs in the consumer discretionary sector -  AlphaSense

Attending a recent executive retreat with one of our member health systems, we heard the CEO make a statement that really resonated with us. Referring to the current workforce crisis—pervasive shortages, pressure to increase compensation, outsized reliance on contract labor to fill critical gaps—the CEO made the assertion that this situation isn’t temporary. Rather, it’s the “new normal”, at least for the next several years.

The Great Resignation that’s swept across the American economy in the wake of COVID has not spared healthcare; every system we talk to is facing alarmingly high vacancy rates as nurses, technicians, and other staff head for the exits. The CEO made a compelling case that the labor cost structure of the system has reset at a level between 20 and 30 percent more expensive than before the pandemic, and executives should begin to turn attention away from stop-gap measures (retention bonuses and the like) to more permanent solutions (rethinking care models, adjusting staffing ratios upward, implementing process automation).

That seemed like an important insight to us. It’s increasingly clear as we approach a third year of the pandemic: there is no “post-COVID world” in which things will go back to normal. Rather, we’ll have to learn to live in the “new normal,” revisiting basic assumptions about how, where, and by whom care is delivered.

If hospital labor costs have indeed permanently reset at a higher level, that implies the need for a radical restructuring of the fundamental economic model of the health systemrazor-thin margins won’t allow for business to continue as usual. Long overdue, perhaps, and a painful evolution for sure—but one that could bring the industry closer to the vision of “right care, right place, right time” promised by population health advocates for over a decade.