A recent conversation with a health system CFO made us realize that a long-standing nugget of received healthcare wisdom might no longer be true. For as long as we can remember, economic observers have said that healthcare is “recession-proof”—one of those sectors of the economy that suffers least during a downturn. The idea was that people still get sick, and still need care, no matter how bad the economy gets. But this CFO shared that her system was beginning to see a slowdown in demand for non-emergent surgeries, and more sluggish outpatient volume generally.
Her hypothesis: rising inflation is putting increased pressure on household budgets, and is beginning to force consumers into tougher tradeoffs between paying for daily necessities and seeking care for health concerns. This is having a more pronounced effect than during past recessions, because we’ve shifted so much financial risk onto individuals via high deductibles and cost-sharing over the past decade.
There’s a double whammy for providers: because the current inflation problems are happening in the first half of year, most consumers are nowhere near hitting their deductibles, leading this CFO to forecast softer volumes for at least the next several months, until the usual “post-deductible spending spree” kicks in.
Combined with the tight labor market, which has increased operating costs between 15 and 20 percent, this inflation-driven drop in demand may have hospitals and health systems experiencing their own dose of recession—contrary to the old chestnut.
Health systems are on edge after two quarters of shaky financial performance, with skyrocketing labor and supply costs compressing margins. But in addition to cost challenges, many are also reporting a softening of demand, with profitable surgeries and other procedures and diagnostics being hit hard. Some report seeing a drop in elective services (as one COO told us, “We may have finally worked our way through the backlog of delayed procedures from 2020 and 2021”), but in many cases, hospitals are missing the staff necessary to open up much-needed surgical capacity.
One system reported having to shut down operating rooms due to a lack of surgical techs. Even more pressing is a shortage in anesthesia capacity, with systems across the country having trouble staffing anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists. Some practitioners have been rolled up into large, investor-owned groups, which then have taken providers out-of-network for key insurers.
But regardless of ownership structure, a shortage of providers has led to “shoestring staffing” with little ability to cover absences or departures, leading to last-minute cancellations of procedures. Pediatric hospitals have been particularly hard-hit. Most rely on subspecialty-trained anesthesiologists, and as one physician leader pointed out, children’s hospitals use anesthesia not just for surgeries, but also for diagnostics, radiation therapy and other treatments where sedation isn’t required for adults.
All in, the shortage of anesthesiologists is leading to critical treatment delays and exacerbating revenue concerns. Moreover, systems are facing frustrated consumers, who care little about the complexities of the healthcare workforce shortage and supply chain challenges that led to an abrupt cancellation of their care.