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.
Healthcare added almost 45,000 jobs in November, but many hospitals and health systems will continue to struggle to meet staffing needs, retain top executives and providers, and foster long-term pipelines for talent, Ted Chien, president and CEO of independent consulting firm SullivanCotter, wrote in a Dec. 15 article for Nasdaq.
Hospitals and health systems are living “paycheck to paycheck” and unable to make long-term investments at the height of the current workforce crisis, Mr. Chien said.
The challenge boils down to a healthcare delivery problem, not a demand problem.
Baby Boomers are the greatest source of care demand on the healthcare system, but are unable to contribute to the provider workforce in the numbers needed to achieve balance, according to Mr. Chien. To compound that issue, burnout is a major factor why “too many” frontline workers have left or plan to exit healthcare, he said.
Last year, an estimated 333,942 healthcare providers dropped out of the workforce, including about 53,000 nurse practitioners, which has led hospitals to spend more on contract labor and feeling more pressure to consolidate, according to an October report published by Definitive Healthcare.
Long term, a continued lack of healthcare workers would force hospitals to operate in a heightened crisis mode, according to Mr. Chien, depriving non-critical patients of sufficient health prevention and demanding too much of providers who are already overly taxed.
Mr. Chien highlighted three key areas to tackle the workforce crisis: smarter technology, resilient teams and excellent leadership.
Technologies that alleviate providers’ administrative burdens will be critical to reduce burnout and keep caregivers focused on patient care, while smarter tech can also forge pipelines for future providers by streamlining clinical experience operations and aligning student placements with existing opportunities.
Building resilient teams begins with competitive pay and robust benefit packages, which fosters trust and demonstrates that a hospital values its staff, according to Mr. Chen. Supporting career growth, including upskilling and redeploying staff when appropriate, empowers employees.
Lastly, capable executive leadership teams, under intense scrutiny from industry stakeholders, must clearly outline their hospital or health system’s strategy and provide the change needed to support their staff. Lack of trust in leaders drives staff out of healthcare, so it is crucial to recruit and retain “modern, strategic thinkers with depth of experience who are prepared to lead,” Mr. Chien wrote.
The majority of hospitals are predicted to have negative margins in 2022, marking the worst year financially for hospitals since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Part 1 of Radio Advisory’s Hospital of the Future series, host Rachel (Rae) Woods invites Advisory Board experts Monica Westhead, Colin Gelbaugh, and Aaron Mauck to discuss why factors like workforce shortages, post-acute financial instability, and growing competition are contributing to this troubling financial landscape and how hospitals are tackling these problems.
As we emerge from the global pandemic, health care is restructuring. What decisions should you be making, and what do you need to know to make them? Explore the state of the health care industry and its outlook for next year by visiting advisory.com/HealthCare2023.
Contract or “temp” employment used to be viewed as a means of supplemental income: a side hustle to an average day job, or a way to pay the bills while searching for full-time work. Now, gig work is back in style, and more workers want in on the flexibility — including C-suite executives, Korn Ferry recently reported.
The gig economy surged when older millennials, born in the 1980s, began rejecting the one-firm careers their parents had, according to Korn Ferry. Although they are currently midcareer, older millennials have switched jobs 7.8 times on average. Baby boomers are also using temporary work to keep busy during retirement, and Generation Z appreciates the flexibility that comes with contract labor.
As temporary work grows in popularity, its influence is spreading to the C-suite. Interim executives are becoming more likely to be tapped when a leader departs, Korn Ferry reported. This gives organizations like health systems, which urgently need leadership in a rapidly changing industry, more time to conduct their searches for full-time replacements.
Sixty percent of executives predict that the number of interim workers at their companies will “substantially increase” within the next three years, Korn Ferry reported. In a period of economic instability, temporary labor can mean less commitment and cost than a permanent worker. But there are downsides to contract labor, too. Since they lack benefits, many contract workers demand higher pay — which can trickle down and lead their permanent counterparts to ask for matched salaries. In the healthcare industry, this is visible in travel nurses’ paychecks, and their controversial effects on health systems’ finances.
For better or for worse, contract labor does not appear to be dying out anytime soon. Fifty-eight million U.S. workers now consider themselves “independent,” Korn Ferry reported — an estimated 36 percent of the total workforce.
Fall is typically a period of increased CFO turnover as hospitals and health systems begin searches for new executives for the beginning of the following year, but the pressures associated with high inflation, a projected recession and the continued effects of the pandemic have led to more churn than usual for top financial positions, The Wall Street Journal reported Oct. 23
Many economists and financial experts are expecting a recession to hit the U.S. in early- to mid-2023. This is pushing some executives to switch roles now before the labor market changes. Many healthcare organizations are also preparing for a potential economic downturn by searching for CFOs who are experienced in cutting costs or restructuring operations, according to the report.
Recession planning in healthcare is challenging because it can have both negative (payer mix, patient volume) and positive effects (decrease in labor and supply inflation) on financial performance, according to Daniel Morash, senior vice president of finance and CFO for Boston-based Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“The best advice I would give is that hospitals need to consider recession scenarios when making long-term commitments on wage increases, capital expenditures and planning for capacity for patient access,” Mr. Morash told Becker’s Hospital Review. “Most of our focus needs to be on the acute challenges we are facing. Still, it’s important to be careful not to overreact or overcommit financially when a recession could change a number of trends we’re seeing now.”
There are few easy ways to cut expenses. But in hospitals and health systems, there are quieter ways.
Workforce reductions are never painless — or never should be, especially for those doing the reducing. Involuntary job loss is one of the most stressful events workers and families experience, carrying mental and physical health risks in addition to the disruption it poses to peoples’ short- and long-term life plans.
But as health systems find themselves in untenable financial positions and looming risk of an economic recession, job cuts and layoffs in hospitals and health systems are increasingly likely. In a report released Oct. 18 from Kaufman Hall based on response from 86 health system leaders, 46 percent said labor costs are the largest opportunity for cost reduction — up significantly from the 17 percent of leaders who said the same last year.
Job cuts at hospitals may seem counterintuitive given the nation’s widely known shortages of healthcare workers. But as hospitals weather one of their most financially difficult years, some are reducing their administrative staff, eliminating vacant jobs and reorganizing or shrinking their executive teams to curb costs.
Decisions to reduce administrative labor tend to garner quieter reactions compared to budgetary decisions to end service lines or close sites of patient care, including hospitals. While the implications of administrative shakeups may be felt throughout a health system, the disruption they pose to patients is less immediately palpable. Few people know the name of their community hospitals’ senior vice presidents, but most do know how many minutes it takes to travel to a nearby site of care for an appointment during a workday or a tolerable amount of time to wait for said appointment.
It doesn’t hurt that hospital and health systems’ administrative ranks have ballooned compared to their patient-facing counterparts. While the number of practicing physicians in the U.S. grew 150 percent between 1975 and 2010, the number of healthcare administrators increased 3,200 percent in the same period. More broadly, administrative spending accounts for 15 to 30 percent of healthcare spending in the U.S. and at least half of that “does not contribute to health outcomes in any discernible way,” according to a report published Oct. 6 in Health Affairs.
A couple of health systems have denoted their plans to cut nonclinical employees and jobs in the past week.
Cleveland-based University Hospitals announced efforts to reduce system expenses by $100 million Oct. 12, including the elimination of 326 vacant jobs and layoffs affecting 117 administrative employees. The workforce reduction comes as the 21-hospital system faces a net operating loss of $184.6 million from the first eight months of 2022.
Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford Health is laying off an undisclosed number of staff, a decision the organization’s top leader says is “to streamline leadership structure and simplify operations” in certain areas, the Argus Leader reported Oct. 19. Bill Gassen, president and CEO of Sanford Health, also said the layoffs primarily affect nonclinical areas and that they will “not adversely impact patient or resident care in any way.”
These developments are only several days old, but have not yet triggered any newsworthy follow-up developments or pushback. Cost reduction efforts that close facilities or reduce services tend to — on the other hand — catalyze scrutiny, debate and conflict in communities that can span for months and even years.
Look to Atlanta. Marietta, Ga.-based Wellstar unexpectedly announced on Aug. 31 that its 460-bed Atlanta Medical Center will end operations on Nov. 1, with plans to progressively wind down services leading up to that date. The system attributed the decision to the $107 million loss incurred operating the hospital over the last 12 months. Noteworthy is that the system has said that 1,430 (82 percent) of Atlanta Medical Center workers affected by the facility’s impending closure have accepted job offers at other Wellstar Health System facilities.
Since, the decision to close one of Atlanta’s level 1 trauma centers has drawn attention from Georgia’s governor and gubernatorial candidate, congressional members and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who in a town hall Oct. 19 said that in closing Atlanta Medical Center, “Wellstar said they don’t want to be in the business of urban healthcare.”
The decision has also spilled over to affect area hospitals, namely Atlanta’s public Grady Health System, which received a $130 million cash infusion from the state and reported a 30 percent increase in patient volume after the emergency department of Atlanta Medical Center closed.
Health systems have a lot to weigh. Their administrative layers are thick, varied and necessary to a degree, meaning this broad category of workers still poses tough decisions when it comes to cost containment efforts. But in a very simple view, laying off people who care for patients will only hurt health systems’ chances of recruiting and retaining clinical talent — in a time when no health systems’ odds of doing so are especially outsized.
U.S. market volatility erased $3.4 trillion from 401(k)s and IRAs in the first half of 2022, making for an anxious time for many workers trying to plan their retirements.
The 2022 losses suggest the retirement savings shortfall among U.S. households is worsening from its $7.1 trillion valuation in 2019, an estimate that came out of Boston College. At that time, half of working families faced were at risk of not being able to maintain their standard of living once they retired.
This proportion likely hasn’t changed much since, Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, told Bloomberg. The people who profited from gains to stock and housing prices over the past three years “were people who weren’t at risk in the first place,” she said.
“Living standards are going to decline for a large portion of the population who are in retirement — that’s the concern,” Richard Johnson, a retirement expert at the Urban Institute, told Bloomberg. “For people who are not in that age group, it’s still concerning because it could strain the social safety net.”
Boston College’s 2019 report on the national retirement risk index concluded that “the only way to make a dramatic dent in the retirement risk problem is to combine saving more with working two years longer.”
The average age for retirement is the highest it has been for the past 30 years, sitting at 61. Nonretirees’ target retirement age has increased from 60 in 1995 to 66 today, meaning the average retirement age will increase even further in coming years if active workers retire when they plan to.
As RNs struggle to work through staffing shortages, their job satisfaction has sharply declined, with 67% saying they plan to leave their jobs within the next few years, according to a survey from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) published in Critical Care Nurse.
RNs cite poor work environments
For the survey, AACN collected responses from 9,862 nurses, 9,335 of which met the study criteria of being currently practicing RNs, in October 2021. The mean age was 46.5 years, and the mean years of experience was 17.8 years.
Of the participants, 78.3% worked in direct care, and 19.4% worked in a Beacon unit, meaning that their unit had been recognized by an AACN Beacon Award for Excellence. Half of the participants said they spent 50% or less of their time caring for Covid-19 patients, while the other half said they spent 50% or more.
To measure the health of a work environment, AACN looked at six standards:
Overall, AACN found that nurses’ perceptions of quality on these six measures had declined across the board since the organization’s 2018 survey.
In particular, appropriate staffing was the lowest rated of all the standards at 2.33 out of 4, which is the lowest rating the standard has received since AACN first began the survey in 2006. Only 24% of RNs said their units had the right number of nurses with the right knowledge and skills more than 75% of the time—down from 39% who said the same in 2018.
In addition, there was a significant decline in how RNs rated the quality of care in their organizations and their units. Only 16% rated their organizations’ quality of care as excellent (compared to 24% in 2018), and 30% rated their units’ quality of care as excellent (compared to 44% in 2018). Over 50% of nurses said quality of care in their organization or unit has gotten somewhat or much worse over the last year.
Many nurses also reported difficulties with their physical and psychological well-being in the survey. For example, less than 50% of RNs said they felt their organization values their health and safety, a significant decline from 68% who said the same in 2018.
In addition, 40% of participants reported that they were not emotionally healthy. The percentage of RNs who reported experiencing moral distress also doubled from 11% in 2018 to 22% in 2021.
A significant portion of RNs also reported experiencing verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual harassment, or discrimination over the past year. Of the 7,399 RNs who answered this question, 72% said they had experienced at least one negative incident, with verbal abuse being the most common at 65%, followed by physical abuse at 28%.
RN job satisfaction
Only 40% of RNs said they were “very satisfied” with their job, down from 62% who said the same in 2018. Further, a significant number of RNs in the survey reported planning to leave their jobs within the next few years.
Overall, 67% of RNs said they planned to leave their current position within the next three years, compared to 54% in 2018. Of this group, 36% said they planned to leave within the next year, with 20% planning to leave within the next six months.
According to the respondents, the top factors that could lead them to reconsider their decision to leave their job were a higher salary and more benefits (63%), better staffing (57%), and more respect from administration (50%).
“Without improvements in the work environment, the results of this study indicate that nurses will continue to exit the workforce in search of more meaningful, rewarding, and sustainable work,” the survey’s authors wrote. “It is time for bold action, and this study shows the way.” (Firth, MedPage Today, 8/3; Ulrich et al., Critical Care Nurse, 8/1)
Hard truths on the current and future state of the nursing workforce
Concerns about an imbalance in supply and demand in the nursing workforce have been around for years. The number of nursing professionals nationally may be healthy, but many nurses are not in the local areas, sites of care, or roles where they’re needed most. And many of today’s nurses don’t have the specialized skills they need, widening the existing gap between nurse experience and job complexity.
As a result, gaping holes in staffing rosters, prolonged vacancies, unstable turnover rates, and unchecked use of premium labor are now common.
Health care leaders need to confront today’s challenges in the nursing workforce differently than past cyclical shortages. In this report, we present six hard truths about the nursing workforce. Then, we detail tactics for how leaders can successfully address these challenges—stabilizing the nursing workforce in the short term and preparing it for the future.
As employers plan for 2023, attracting and retaining talent is top of mind amid a competitive U.S. labor market. That’s led to over two-thirds of companies planning to enhance employee health and benefit offerings next year, according to survey results from Mercer published July 6.
The survey was conducted April 26 to May 13. In total, 708 organizations participated, from all industries and of all sizes ranging from fewer than 500 employees to more than 5,000.
Nine things to know:
Among large employers, 70 percent are planning to enhance health and benefit offerings in 2023.
Among all employers, 61 percent are conducting surveys on employee benefit preferences.
Among large employers, 41 percent currently provide a plan option with a low deductible or none at all, and 11 percent are considering it.
Over half of employees say no remote or hybrid work is a deal breaker when considering to join or stay with an organization. Among all employers, 78 percent now allow employees to work from home regularly, compared to 26 percent in 2021.
Among large employers, 52 percent will offer virtual behavioral healthcare in 2023, and 40 percent will offer a virtual primary care physician network or service.
Though 64 percent of employers are not prioritizing a single employee group for benefit enhancements, 35 percent say they are focusing on hourly and low-wage employees.
Nearly one-third of employers will offer benefits such as fertility treatment coverage and adoption and surrogacy benefits by 2023, and almost another third are considering it.
Among all employers, 70 percent currently offer or plan to offer paid parental leave in 2023.
Among all employers, 75 percent offer or plan to offer tuition reimbursement in 2023.