During the pandemic, many nurses left hospital staff jobs for more lucrative travel jobs. However, many of these nurses are returning to hospitals for full-time positions, especially as travel pay falls and organizations offer new staff benefits, Melanie Evans writes for the Wall Street Journal.
Hospitals see more nurses return to their positions
During the pandemic, many hospitals struggled with staffing shortages as many nurses left their positions as a result of burnout or for more high-paying travel opportunities. However, many nurses are now returning to staff positions, especially as travel pay declines.
According to Aya Healthcare CEO Alan Braynin, travel nurse pay is now down 28% compared to a year ago. Hospital openings for travel nurses were also down by 51% at the end of April compared to the same time last year.
At HCA Healthcare, the country’s largest publicly traded hospital chain, nurse hiring increased by 19% in the first three months of the year compared to the average across the last four quarters. In addition, turnover levels have almost declined to pre-pandemic levels, and HCA’s travel nurse costs have dropped by 21% in the first quarter of this year compared to 2022.
According to the organization, many nurses who initially left their hospitals during the pandemic are now coming back. Since 2022, around 20% of the 37,000 nurses hired at HCA hospitals previously worked for the company at some point between 2016 and 2022.
Similarly, Houston Methodist has rehired around 60 nurses who initially left during the pandemic. Roberta Schwartz, the chief innovation officer at the health system’s flagship hospital, said these returning nurses have helped the hospital make more beds available and keep up with an 8% increase in demand.
“The boomerang nurses have returned,” said Gail Vozzella, Houston Methodist’s chief nurse.
How hospitals are attracting boomerang nurses
To attract more nurses to staff positions, hospital officials said they are offering higher pay, as well as several new benefits, such as childcare, less demanding work positions, and more flexible schedules.
For example, Suzane Nguyen, who took a teaching job during the pandemic, rejoined Houston Methodist in June 2022 after she was offered a virtual job. In her new position, she collects patient information by video. “The stress doesn’t compare,” she said.
Similarly, Linda Allen, an ED nurse who left to work for a temporary agency during the pandemic, returned to Sentara Healthcare in 2022 after the hospital system increased its wages and offered new, more flexible schedules.
According to Terrie Edwards, Sentara’s regional VP, the organization has increased its nurse wages by around 21% in the last two years and now offers student debt relief up to $10,000, as well as adoption and infertility benefits.
Overall, these changes have helped Sentara hire around 400 boomerang nurses, which has reduced staff overtime and cut its travel nurse expenses in half.
“They really did step up,” said Allen, who became a full-time employee in September 2022 after initially working temporary 13-week contracts.
Outside of these benefits, some nurses are also just ready for more permanent positions after spending the pandemic working in several different hospitals. “There is something to be said for working in the same place every day, consistently,” said Alexis Brockting, an advanced practice nurse at Mercy Hospital South.
With companies fighting for financial know-how, a spotlight is beginning to shine on leaders who can bring the skill sets and expertise firms need in the moment.
Demand for interim leaders shot up significantly during the past 12 months, a report by Business Talent Group, a Heidrick & Struggles company, found, rising 116% year-over-year. Requests for on-demand finance chiefs in particular saw a considerable spike, increasing by 103% YoY, boosted by both continued economic uncertainty and the growing complexities of the CFO role.
The rising demand for interim CFOs is also partly due to growing awareness of the availability of such short-term expertise, said Sandra Pinnavaia, Chief Innovation Officer for BTG.
“Companies, as they get more comfortable and aware of the fact that there is this on-demand talent world, it allows them to contemplate different kinds of changes and uses than before,” Pinnavaia said. “So I do think there’s an underlying driver here, that is in a sense, supply creates demand.”
The interim CFO’s appeal
For companies, interims can help firms navigate through tricky periods or transitions. Requests for interim CFOs made up half of all interim C-suite requests, according to the BTG report. Companies are specifically searching for financial leadership skilled in financial controls, accounting and audit. Demand for such expertise rose 76% YoY.
For finance leaders, the higher demand coincides with gains in the compensation and benefits that accompany the role, said Jack McCullough, President of the CFO Leadership Council.
There’s better money available for CFOs who do this type of contract or interim work, leading to more executives interested in these types of jobs, McCullough said in an interview. For example, some part-time CFOs have begun to receive stock options, he said, referring to a CFO who received the benefit at three startups.
Taking an interim role can also be a refreshing change for finance leaders who want to apply their skills in new areas, according to Diane Buckley, managing partner of Forte Financial Consulting LLC. Buckley, a veteran of Big Four accounting firm Ernst & Young, was drawn to interim and fractional CFO work because it afforded her the option to share her skills with growing companies and “really be impactful day one,” she said.
“It was like, ‘I can bring value to smaller companies that may not at this point in their growth warrant a full-time CFO, but I can bring that skill set to them,’” she said in an interview.
On the supply side, shifting workforce trends may be prompting more companies to take a second look at what they need from their leadership.
Talent shortages across the accounting and finance space mean companies may be facing a year-long period to find a qualified CFO, making it more necessary to put in an interim “even if it’s not the ideal person,” McCullough said.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has also left a lasting mark: BTG clients have tapped more interims because “they have been forced over the last few years, to redefine their whole way of working,” Pinnavaia said.
“Now obviously we have a huge spectrum — there are companies that are back full-time, in-person every day, and there are companies that have really changed their business model and they’re not in-person at all,” she said. “But I think that has loosened up the aperture for what would be an acceptable solution” when it comes to leadership, she said.
The right talent at the right time
Hiring on-demand talent also allows companies to find a leader who can meet their needs in the moment — and since many interims come into a company to solve a particular problem or meet a specific goal, one’s skills are “kind of by definition matched to what the issues are,” said Reed Malleck, CFO of Ratio Therapeutics.
CFOs often need to operate in “four dimensions,” he said in an interview, including accounting, operational skills, investor relations and the ability to participate in the execution of strategy for the business.
“If you’re a permanent CFO, you have to cover all of those, even though you might be really good at only one of them,” according to Malleck, an experienced interim executive who took on several such roles as an engagement partner with executive talent firm Tatum, a Randstad company. “But as an interim person, it’s more targeted, like, ‘we need a guy who’s really good at operations. We need this thing to be fixed.’”
Being able to slot one’s skills perfectly into the situation can be a huge benefit for CFOs, many of whom are dealing with expanding job creep. While becoming an interim is not necessarily less stressful than a permanent CFO position, “in a way, you get relief when you get to the point where you fix everything, and when you’re in a permanent role that never happens,” Malleck said. “When you’re in a permanent role, there’s always something new that’s a new problem.”
With CFOs taking on more responsibility for areas like digital transformation, keeping up with the books and juggling other operational needs across the organization, “the CFO is blamed for this and blamed for that … increasingly, people get burnt out or there’s a loss of trust,” he said.
“Hundreds of analysts are looking at your stock and your performance, the market and the competitors and the technology and you have to explain things not once a quarter, but like five times a day,” Malleck said.
Succession planning is vital
Another often unexplored benefit of on-demand talent is as a source of expertise for future company leaders. A shortage of talent in the finance and accounting fields is worsening, with potential accountants lured away by shinier fields such as technology.
As a result, building a pipeline for executives with CFO skills is crucial.
Moreover, CFOs who were at the top financial seat the last time the U.S. saw serious inflation in the 1980s have long since retired, McCullough said. Finance leaders today face a “steep learning curve.”
“CFOs, through no fault of their own, they haven’t had to develop the skills” necessary to navigate current economic turmoil, he said.
Many CFOs with decades of experience are also either looking to retire, or seeking promotion rather than lateral opportunities, said Shawn Cole, president of boutique executive search firm Cowen Partners.
The jump from the CFO to the CEO seat is “way more commonplace” today than it was just a few decades ago, Cole said in an interview, opening up more opportunities for finance heads. Promoting internal candidates to an interim chair can be an easier and more affordable way for certain companies — faced with both a dearth of qualified external candidates and shaky succession planning — to fill the seat while they hunt for a long-term replacement, he said.
“For the last decade or so, businesses have been in like a boom or bust kind of scenario,” Cole said. “And so I think there’s just this lack of investment in a future generation.”
Whether an internal or external interim hire, the executive should also be a welcome and engaged part of the search for a long-term candidate, Cole said. It is part of their fiduciary obligations to a company and its shareholders to “do the necessary due diligence to make an informed hire.”
While internal interims can be an affordable choice, there can also be drawbacks: the “most damning issue” being when an internal interim pick is acting both as interim CFO as well as retaining the responsibilities of their original role at the company, Cole said.
“So what they wind up being is CFO in name only and they still are fulfilling the role of financial reporting or something like that,” he said.
Interims and on-demand talent will probably play a greater role in a company as time goes on, Pinnavaia said. She pointed to clients who might think they need an interim CFO, for example, but who are really searching for an expert or CFO who is able to do a specific project with the existing leadership team. In such a scenario, hiring an interim controller or another executive on-demand with the right finance skills would be the best way forward, she said.
“I’m very excited about this as an innovation in how business gets done,” she said. “It is a way of applying … real time alignment of skill and capacity against particular challenges or opportunities in the business.”
Hospital margins continued to stabilize in March with a slight improvement over February, according to data from Kaufman Hall’s National Hospital Flash Report. However, margins remain below pre-pandemic levels, leaving hospitals in a vulnerable position should a recession or a new public health emergency materialize.
For provider practices, physician productivity increased but the increased revenues could not keep pace expenses, according to the quarterly Physician Flash Report.
While things appear relatively calm at the moment, there remain significant challenges—specifically labor shortages and diminished margins—that could quickly reach the surface if hospitals and health systems are faced with another crisis.
Kaufman Hall experts are seeing increased reliance on advanced practice providers (APPs)—e.g. Nurse Practitioners and Physician Associates—and note that those that hire, retain and deploy this critical workforce most effectively will see more success in the long term.
With input from stakeholders across the industry, Modern Healthcare outlines six challenges health care is likely to face in 2023—and what leaders can do about them.
1. Financial difficulties
In 2023, health systems will likely continue to face financial difficulties due to ongoing staffing problems, reduced patient volumes, and rising inflation.
According to Tina Wheeler, U.S. health care leader at Deloitte, hospitals can expect wage growth to continue to increase even as they try to contain labor costs. They can also expect expenses, including for supplies and pharmaceuticals, to remain elevated.
Health systems are also no longer able to rely on federal Covid-19 relief funding to offset some of these rising costs. Cuts to Medicare reimbursement rates could also negatively impact revenue.
“You’re going to have all these forces that are counterproductive that you’re going to have to navigate,” Wheeler said.
In addition, Erik Swanson, SVP of data and analytics at Kaufman Hall, said the continued shift to outpatient care will likely affect hospitals’ profit margins.
“The reality is … those sites of care in many cases tend to be lower-cost ways of delivering care, so ultimately it could be beneficial to health systems as a whole, but only for those systems that are able to offer those services and have that footprint,” he said.
2. Health system mergers
Although hospital transactions have slowed in the last few years, market watchers say mergers are expected to rebound as health systems aim to spread their growing expenses over larger organizations and increase their bargaining leverage with insurers.
“There is going to be some organizational soul-searching for some health systems that might force them to affiliate, even though they prefer not to,” said Patrick Cross, a partner at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath. “Health systems are soliciting partners, not because they are on the verge of bankruptcy, but because they are looking at their crystal ball and not seeing an easy road ahead.”
Financial challenges may also lead more physician practices to join health systems, private-equity groups, larger practices, or insurance companies.
“Many independent physicians are really struggling with their ability to maintain their independence,” said Joshua Kaye, chair of U.S. health care practice at DLA Piper. “There will be a fair amount of deal activity. The question will be more about the size and specialty of the practices that will be part of the next consolidation wave.”
3. Recruiting and retaining staff
According to data from Fitch Ratings, health care job openings reached an all-time high of 9.2% in September 2022—more than double the average rate of 4.2% between 2010 and 2019. With this trend likely to continue, organizations will need to find effective ways to recruit and retain workers.
Currently, some organizations are upgrading their processes and technology to hire people more quickly. They are also creating service-level agreements between recruiting and hiring teams to ensure interviews are scheduled within 48 hours or decisions are made within 24 hours.
Eric Burch, executive principal of operations and workforce services at Vizient, also predicted that there will be a continued need for contract labors, so health systems will need to consider travel nurses in their staffing plans.
“It’s really important to approach contract labor vendors as a strategic partner,” Burch said. “So when you need the staff, it’s a partnership and they’re able to help you get to your goals, versus suddenly reaching out to them and they don’t know your needs when you’re in crisis.”
When it comes to retention, Tochi Iroku-Malize, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), said health systems are adequately compensated for their work and have enough staff to alleviate potential burnout.
AAFP also supports legislation to streamline prior authorization in the Medicare Advantage program and avoid additional cuts to Medicare payments, which will help physicians provide care to patients with less stress.
4. Payer-provider contract disputes
A potential recession, along with the ensuing job cuts that typically follow, would limit insurers’ commercial business, which is their most profitable product line. Instead, many people who lose their jobs will likely sign up for Medicaid plans, which is much less profitable.
Because of increased labor, supply, and infrastructure costs, Brad Ellis, senior director at Fitch Ratings, said providers could pressure insurers into increasing the amount they pay for services. This will lead insurers to passing these increased costs onto members’ premiums.
Currently, Ellis said insurers are keeping an eye on how legislators finalize rules to implement the No Surprise Act’s independent resolution process. Regulators will also begin issuing fines for payers who are not in compliance with the law’s price transparency requirement.
5. Investment in digital health
Much like 2022, investment in digital health is likely to remain strong but subdued in 2023.
“You’ll continue to see layoffs, and startup funding is going to be hard to come by,” said Russell Glass, CEO of Headspace Health.
However, investors and health care leaders say they expect a strong market for digital health technology, such as tools for revenue cycle management and hospital-at-home programs.
According to Julian Pham, founding and managing partner at Third Culture Capital, he expects corporations such as CVS Health to continue to invest in health tech companies and for there to be more digital health mergers and acquisitions overall.
In addition, he predicted that investors, pharmaceutical companies, and insurers will show more interest in digital therapeutics, which are software applications prescribed by clinicians.
“As a physician, I’ve always dreamed of a future where I could prescribe an app,” Pham said. “Is it the right time? Time will tell. A lot needs to happen in digital therapeutics and it’s going to be hard.”
6. Health equity efforts
This year, CMS will continue rolling out new health equity initiatives and quality measurements for providers and insurers who serve marketplace, Medicare, and Medicaid beneficiaries. Some new quality measures include maternal health, opioid related adverse events, and social need/risk factor screenings.
CMS, the Joint Commission, and the National Committee for Quality Assurance are also partnering together to establish standards for health equity and data collection.
In addition, HHS is slated to restore a rule under the Affordable Care Act that prohibits discrimination based on a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. According to experts, this rule may conflict with recently passed state laws that ban gender-affirming care for minors.
“It’s something that’s going to bear out in the courts and will likely lack clarity. We’ll see differences in what different courts decide,” said Lindsey Dawson, associate director of HIV policy and director of LGBTQ health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “The Supreme Court acknowledged that there was this tension. So it’s an important place to watch and understand better moving forward.”
The shortage of accountants is one of the main concerns keeping KPMG’s Greg Engel up at night. The firm is teaming up with universities to expand the talent pool.
KPMG’s Greg Engel likens the accounting profession to the turtle in the proverbial race with the hare — a turtle that’s seeking to pull ahead even as it competes with flashier industry sectors for workers.
The shortage of accounting talent is one of the main concerns keeping Engel — vice chair of tax in the U.S. for the Big Four accounting firm — up at night as he assesses the new year’s challenges, even as KPMG has undertaken numerous initiatives to ease the talent crunch.
At the same time, he sees a potential silver lining for his sector in the recent surge of layoffs in the formerly sizzling tech sector that has won over some college graduates who might have otherwise gone into accounting.
“A lot of people went to the technology sector because it was exciting. But now that Meta and Twitter and all these other companies are laying off people, kids going into college might go, ‘wait a minute, maybe KPMG sounds a little better than Twitter,’” Engel said in an interview. “Accounting is that boring, stable profession that doesn’t do as well in hugely expansive economies but does great when the economy’s on the downslide.”
Making accounting’s case
Historically, the Big Four accounting and consulting firms have mounted robust programs designed to recruit and train accounting students right out of colleges and major universities.
KPMG, along with PwC, Ernst & Young and Deloitte, hire thousands of graduates and students each year out of colleges, often training them through internships which lead to full-time jobs. Many of the certified public accountants go on to be controllers, tax directors and even CFOs. The entry level accounting salary range at such programs in the tax area can be roughly in the $70,000 to $80,000 range, depending on the market, according to some industry estimates.
“The hallmark of the Big Four was to train people really, really well,” Engel said. The longer employees stay at a firm, the better their prospects after they leave, Engel said.
That means an employee who leaves after a couple years could probably join a company’s accounting department at a lower level, he said. But if the employee leaves after rising to the level of senior manager, he or she could join the same company as controller — and those who leave as a partner might join as a CFO, Engel said.
CFO machine showing signs of wear
But the machine generating CPAs and CFOs has shown signs of wear in recent years. For one thing, KPMG has not been immune to the Great Resignation. It was hit by the surge in turnover that weakened the middle ladder rungs of its workforce. “There’s a kind of battle in the middle,” Engel said. The company responded in part by hiring experienced accountants from companies like Apple and Home Depot, he said.
At the same time, accounting has attracted fewer students in recent years. The total number of U.S. students completing a Bachelor’s degree in accounting fell about 8% in the 2019-2020 school year compared with the 2011-2012 period, shrinking to 52,481 graduates from 57,482, according to a 2021 report from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Priming the pipeline
Firms and accounting organizations have been taking deliberative steps in recent years to boost their case with talent and solve the talent shortage. For instance, the AICPA and the Department of Labor announced in November that they had teamed up to cultivate candidates and expand the pool of professionals, CFO Dive reported.
If students are not deterred by the accounting profession’s long hours and subdued reputation, they may feel reluctant to put in the credit hours required before taking the exam to become a Certified Public Accountant. That typically means a student will need more study beyond that of a four-year degree.
In an effort to make the extra course work pay off, KPMG worked with a number of universities to develop a Master in Accounting and Data Analytics Program that gives students the data analysis skills that are increasingly important in the field.
Recently, an additional seven universities were added to the program and KPMG has pledged to provide more than $7 million in scholarships. The schools added to the program included some historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Howard University School of Business and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Other universities that offer the program include Villanova University and The Ohio State University.
Separately, KPMG has teamed up with Engel’s alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to help strengthen the accounting program and opportunities for students attending Des Moines Area Community College.
The company will also aim to provide internships to the students who often attend school at night or part-time, which can make it difficult to obtain the credit hours needed to become a CPA.
“We’re going to start adding people to the profession with two-year associates degrees,” Engel said, noting that similar programs are cropping up elsewhere. “We’ll give them a pathway to add the extra courses and programs they need.”
Nonprofit hospitals are bracing for a challenging few months as healthcare and social assistance job vacancies remain high against a backdrop of low unemployment, Fitch Ratings said in an Oct. 25 update.
Healthcare and social assistance job openings fell for two consecutive months to 7.7 percent as of August, but the number of openings remains above the highest level recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic.
One encouraging sign is the slowly declining number of quits — 2.3 percent (486,000 quits) in August 2022 compared with a peak of 3.1 percent (626,000 quits) in November 2021. However, current quit rates remain high and are on track to exceed last year, according to Fitch.
“[not-for-profit] hospital quits will need to normalize to well below pre-pandemic levels in order to reduce staffing shortages and a reliance on contract/temporary labor,” Fitch Director Richard Park said in the news release.
The labor shortage saw hospital employees’ average weekly earnings increase 21.1 percent since February, significantly higher than the 13.6 percent earnings growth of overall private sector employees, according to Fitch. But ambulatory healthcare services employees’ earnings increased by only 12.6 percent over the same period.
“Wage increases and employee recruitment challenges may amplify the role of ambulatory care in the overall healthcare sector and continue the acceleration of inpatient care to outpatient settings,” Mr. Park said.