The typical media coverage of the healthcare workforce crisis often focuses on the acute shortage of hospital-based nurses. For instance, the hospital forced to close a unit as nurses, burned out after 18 months of extra shifts taking care of COVID patients, leave for lower-stress, more predictable jobs in outpatient facilities or doctors’ offices.
But we’re hearing about a reverse trend in recent conversations with health system leaders. Instead of outpatient settings benefiting from an influx of nursing talent, ambulatory leaders report that nurses are now leaving for hospital or travel nursing positions that offer higher salaries and large sign-on bonuses. That’s forcing non-hospital settings to reduce operating room and endoscopy capacity.
Nor are shortages just in the nursing workforce. One system executive lamented that they had to cancel several non-emergent cardiac surgeries, not due to nurse staffing challenges; rather, they were short on surgical technicians. “Surgical techs aren’t leaving because of COVID,” the executive shared, “they’re leaving because the labor market is so strong, and they can make the same money doing something entirely different.”
For lower-wage workers in particular, the old value proposition of working for a health system, centered around good benefits, continuing education, and a long-term career path, isn’t providing the boost it used to. Workers are willing to trade those for improved work-life balance, predictability, and the perception of a “safer” workplace.
Stabilizing the healthcare workforce will ultimately require providers to rethink job design, the allocation of talent across settings of care, and the integration of technology in workflow. And it will require re-anchoring the work in the mission of serving the community.
But in the short term, many health systems will find themselves having to pay more to retain key workers, including but not limited to hospital nurses, to maintain patient access to care.