We’ve been having “year ahead” discussions with our health system members over the past few weeks, although it’s been difficult for some to carve out time for planning in the midst of the Omicron surge.
One common theme is that, from a financial perspective, 2022 is expected to be a more difficult year. For many systems, despite the trying COVID situation, the past two years have been financial record-setters. In 2020, systems benefited from a massive infusion of COVID relief funding from the government, and in 2021, they continued to enjoy enhanced reimbursement due to COVID, plus had a resurgence of volume as patients sought care that was previously postponed.
2022 looks to be a more “normal” year—meaning a return to the financial pressures of pre-pandemic times. Those include mounting price compression from payers, an accelerating shift of care from inpatient to outpatient settings, and increasing competition for patients from disruptors and others. At the same time, patient acuity will continue to rise, with patients presenting sicker and with more comorbidities. The cost of caring for those patients will escalate, as the workforce shortage drives labor costs higher and supply chain woes persist.
We’d anticipate a year or more of belt-tightening among many health systems, as they adjust to the post-pandemic environment.
As COVID hospitalizations surge to new highs, healthcare workers have become the rate-limiting factor for most hospitals’ ability to deliver care. Using self-reported data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services, the graphic above shows that hospital staffing concerns reached an all-time high this month, with nearly one in three hospitals reporting a critical shortage. (Anecdotal evidence from our conversations with hospital leaders suggests that the actual number in crisis may be even higher, with every system we’ve spoken to in the past month reporting severe staffing challenges.)
During previous surges, COVID hospitalizations and reported staffing shortages have ebbed and flowed together. However, staffing challenges and case numbers became decoupled during the Delta surge, as the percentage of hospitals reporting staffing shortages did not go down as the Delta wave subsided.
With a growing number of nurses and other staff choosing early retirement or looking for jobs in other sectors, health systems are navigating the Omicron spike with a smaller pool of workers. And now the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant is forcing healthcare workers to quarantine in droves.
As shown on the map, this is playing out both in highly vaccinated states like Vermont and California, and less-vaccinated places like West Virginia and Wyoming. That’s leading some state health officials and health systems to allow COVID-positive staff who are asymptomatic or experiencing mild symptoms to continue working—a policy which is being sharply criticized by nurses.
While the end of the Omicron surge should bring some relief, longer-term staffing challenges will surely remain for most health systems.
Every hospital in America has been affected by the growing shortage of nursing talent as the pandemic persists. This week a health system chief operating officer shared her greatest concern about the future of the nursing workforce: “We’re under immense pressure to find any nurses we can to keep units and operating rooms open. But if I think about the long-term impact, what I am most worried about is losing our most experienced nurses en masse.”
The average age of a nurse is 52, and 19 percent of nurses are over 65. Health systems have been facing a wave of retirements of Baby Boomer nurses, and the stresses of the pandemic, both in the workplace and at home, have dramatically accelerated the rate of tenured nurses leaving the profession, taking their well-honed clinical acumen with them.
“We’re looking at ways to increase the nursing pipeline, but you can’t replace a nurse with decades of experience one-to-one with someone just out of school, and expect the same level of clinical management, particularly for complex patients,” our COO colleague shared.
In the near term, her system is looking at two sets of strategies to maintain the nursing “brain trust”.
First, they hope to retain tenured nurses with job flexibility: “We’re not just losing nurses to retirement, we’re losing them to Siemens and Aetna—not because they are excited about that work, but because they don’t want to work a 12-hour shift. We have to be better about creating part-time, flexible schedules.”
Second, they are piloting telenursing and decision-support solutions to provide guidance and a second set of eyes for new nurses. These tools have also helped in new nurse recruitment. We’d predict the workforce crisis will persist far beyond the pandemic, and require rethinking of training, process automation, and the boundaries of practice license. But in the near-term, retaining and upskilling the talent we have is essential to maintaining access and quality.
Another challenging year defined by the continued COVID-19 fight and vaccination drives has created a unique healthcare landscape. Pandemic-induced telehealth booms, continued strain due to understaffing and pressure from big tech disruptors are just some of the issues that have presented themselves this year.
Here are five major trends that hospitals and health systems may see in 2022. While some present challenges, others present significant opportunities for healthcare facilities.
Record numbers of workers have quit their jobs in 2021, with some 4.4 million people quitting in September. That means that 1 in 4 people quit their jobs this year across all industries. Around 1 in 5 healthcare workers have left their positions, creating issues with understaffing and lack of resources in hospitals and health systems. Stress, burnout and lack of balance have all been cited as reasons for staff leaving their roles. An increase in violence toward medical professionals, continued COVID-19 surges and low pay and benefits have contributed to the exodus of healthcare workers. None of those problems seems poised to disappear come 2022, so the new year could bring continued workforce and staffing challenges.
Pressure from disruptors
Big tech and retail giants have continued their push into healthcare this year. Companies like Apple, Amazon and Google stepped up their game in the wearables market. Pharmacy and retail chains Walmart and CVS Health both detailed their intended expansions into primary care. The pandemic also encouraged big corporations outside the healthcare sector, like Pepsi and Delta Airlines, to consider hiring CMOs to make sense of public health regulations guide them on their policy. These moves all mean there is a tightening of competition for the top physicians and hospital executives. Going into 2022, health systems may be under pressure to hang onto top talent and keep patients from using other convenient health services offered by retail giants.
The unequal toll of the pandemic on people of color both medically and economically helped shed a light on the rampant inequities in American healthcare and society at large. Indigineous, Black and Hispanic people were much more likely than white or Asian people to suffer severe illness or require hospitalization as a result of COVID-19. Increasing numbers of hospitals, health systems and organizations are starting initiatives to advance health equity and focus on the socioeconomic drivers of health. The American Medical Association launched a language guide to encourage greater awareness about the power of language. Z-code usage has also been encouraged by CMS to increase knowledge and data about the social determinants of health. Next year, the perspective of health as holistic instead of just a part of an individual’s life will continue, with special attention being paid to social drivers.
The pandemic helped the telemedicine industry take off in a big way. Telehealth was often the only healthcare option for many patients during the height of the lockdown measures introduced during the pandemic. Despite a return to in-person visits, telehealth has retained its popularity with patients. Some advocates argue that telehealth can help increase access to healthcare and improve health equity. About 40 percent of patients said that telehealth makes them more engaged and interact more frequently with their providers. However, while Americans see telehealth as the future of healthcare, a majority still prefer in-person visits. Regardless of patient opinion, telehealth will remain a key part of health strategy. In late December, the FCC approved $42.7 million in funding for telehealth for 68 healthcare providers. This suggests that there are investments and subsidies available in the future for health systems to bolster their telehealth services.
At the 2021 UN Climate Conference, Cop26, in Glasgow, Scotland, hospitals and health systems acknowledged the role they have to play in mitigating the effects of climate change. Hospitals and health systems shed light on the health-related effects of climate change, such as illness and disease from events like wildfires and extreme weather. Health systems are also becoming more aware of their own contributions to climate change, with the U.S. healthcare system emitting 27 percent of healthcare emissions worldwide. To that end, HHS created an office of climate change and health equity that will work alongside regulators to reduce carbon emissions from hospitals. More health systems too are taking charge and pledging net neutrality and zero carbon emissions goals, including Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealth group. It’s expected that more systems will follow suit in the coming year and make more concrete plans to address emissions reduction.
New weekly jobless claims held below pre-pandemic levels last week, further underscoring still-solid demand for labor heading into the new year.
The Labor Department released its latest weekly jobless claims report Thursday at 8:30 a.m. ET. Here were the main metrics from the print, compared to consensus estimates compiled by Bloomberg:
- Initial jobless claims, week ended Dec. 18: 205,000 vs. 205,000 expected and a downwardly revised 205,000 during prior week
- Continuing claims, week ended Dec. 11: 1.859 million vs. 1.835 million expected and an upwardly revised 1.867 million during prior week
This week’s new jobless claims report coincides with the survey week for the December monthly jobs report from the Labor Department, offering an early indication of the relative strength expected in that print due for release in early January.
At 205,000, initial unemployment claims were expected to come in below even pre-pandemic levels yet again, with jobless claims having averaged around 220,000 per week throughout 2019. Earlier this month, first-time unemployment filings fell sharply to 188,000, or the lowest level since 1969. And based on the latest report, the four-week moving average for new claims was near its lowest in 52 years, ticking up by 2,750 week-over-week to reach 206,250.
Continuing claims have also come down sharply from pandemic-era highs, albeit while remaining slightly above the 2019 average of about 1.7 million. This metric, which counts the total number of individuals claiming benefits across regular state programs, came in below 2 million for a fourth straight week and reached the lowest level since March 2020.
“The claims data indicate strong demand for workers and a reluctance by businesses to lay off workers,” Rubeela Farooqi, chief economist for High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note. “However, disruptions around Omicron and Delta could be a headwind if businesses have to close for health-related reasons.”
“Overall, the direction in the labor market recovery remains positive, with demand still strong,” she added. “Labor shortages are persisting, preventing a stronger recovery, although these appeared to ease somewhat in November.”
And indeed, policymakers have also taken note of the improving labor market situation. In a press conference last week, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell maintained, “Amid improving labor market conditions and very strong demand for workers, the economy has been making rapid progress toward maximum employment.” And at the close of the Federal Open Market Committee’s latest policy-setting meeting, officials decided to speed their rate of asset-purchase tapering, paring back some crisis-era support in the economy as the recovery progressed.
Many Americans have also cited solid labor market conditions, especially as job openings hold at historically high levels. In the Conference Board’s latest Consumer Confidence report for December, 55.1% of consumers surveyed said jobs were “plentiful.” While this rate was down slightly from November’s 55.5%, it still represented a “historically strong reading,” according to the Conference Board.
- The boom in global mergers and acquisitions in 2021 will surge into 2022, fueled by abundant investment capital, historically low interest rates and a rebound in global economic growth, according to a survey of 345 corporate dealmakers in the U.S. by KPMG.
- “Based on the volume of new pitches in November and December — transactions that would come to market in Q1 and Q2 of 2022 — there are no signs of a slowing deal market,” according to Philip Isom, global head of M&A at KPMG. While facing high valuations, “most investors have limited time horizons to invest in, so they may be willing to reach further on price than they have historically.”
- More than 80% of the survey respondents across several industries expect total M&A valuations to rise further next year, with about one out of every three predicting at least a 10% increase, KPMG said. Dealmakers said transaction levels will remain robust because companies “need to remain on the offense with the competition” and “feel pressure from investors to raise their own valuations.”
Worldwide deal value from January until mid-November this year hit $5.1 trillion, the highest level since 2015 and a 34% gain compared with all of 2020, KPMG said. U.S. transactions rose to $2.9 trillion, or 55% more than during all of last year.
M&A has soared in 2021 as the economy recovered from a pandemic shock, record monetary and fiscal stimulus pumped up liquidity and many companies sought through acquisitions to regain their footing after months of lockdowns and persistent supply chain disruptions.
A widespread labor shortage will probably push up dealmaking next year. One-third of survey respondents said they want to use M&A to acquire talent, KPMG said.
Also, companies increasingly use acquisitions to change their business or operating models, KPMG said, noting that industrial and financial services companies buy companies that help speed their digital transformation.
“The aim is to increase efficiencies and contribute to having more agile workforces,” according to Carole Streicher, KPMG’s deal advisory and strategy service group leader in the U.S.
Private equity firms will continue to push up the volume and value of M&A next year, after increasing their involvement in transaction value by more than 55% so far in 2021, KPMG said. PE firms have pursued deals this year in part because of the prospect of an increase in corporate capital gains taxes.
Growing support for sustainability among investors, regulators and other stakeholders may prompt M&A, “as businesses look at their ecological footprint and consider purchasing, rationalizing or divesting assets,” KPMG said. Investors are likely to consider sustainable businesses more adaptable to market shifts.
Finally, concerns about the potential for rising borrowing costs may prompt dealmakers who rely on debt financing to speed up acquisition plans. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell late last month said policymakers at their two-day meeting beginning Tuesday will likely consider speeding up the withdrawal of accommodation.
Dealmakers face some headwinds. Democrats in the Senate have yet to muster enough support for a roughly $2 trillion social policy bill that would help sustain economic growth. Meanwhile, the outbreak of the omicron variant of COVID-19 has highlighted the fragility of financial markets and the economy to any setbacks in curbing the pandemic.
Survey respondents identified several factors that will influence dealmaking next year, with 61% underscoring high valuations, 56% pointing to liquidity and other economic considerations, and 55% noting intense competition for a limited number of highly valued acquisition targets, KPMG said.
Still, only 7% of the survey respondents said they expect deal volumes to decline in their industries next year.
Survey respondents work at companies in industries ranging from media and financial services to energy and technology, with 194 of them CFOs, CEOs or other C-suite executives.