There are an estimated 19,000 full-time job vacancies across Massachusetts acute care hospitals, according to a survey published Oct. 31 by the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association.
Hospitals are working to address backlogs and transfer patients to post-acute care settings while skyrocketing labor costs — including a projected $1 billion in travel labor costs this year — are compounding healthcare facilities’ financial woes, according to the report. These challenges are hampering hospital operations as well as leading to care delays and reduced access to care.
Fewer workers mean that fewer beds are available for patients, while the demand for care increases due to deferred care throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the behavioral health crisis and reduced access to community-based services continue to challenge hospitals throughout the state. At any given time, more than 1,500 patients are in acute hospital beds awaiting placement to a specialized behavioral health bed or post-acute care, according to the MHA.
“Our healthcare system has never been more fragile, and its leaders have never been more concerned about what’s to come in months ahead,” Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the MHA, said in an Oct. 31 news release shared with Becker’s Hospital Review. “They are exhausting every option within their control to confront these challenges, but this is an unsustainable reality and providers are in dire need of support.”
In response to the survey, 37 hospitals — representing 70 percent of the state’s total hospital employment — reported 6,650 vacancies among 47 positions critical to hospital operations and clinical care. The positions range from direct care nurses to lab personnel and clinical support staff. Eighteen of the 47 positions have a vacancy rate greater than 20 percent.
At a 56 percent vacancy rate, licensed practical nurses is the most in-demand position, while home health aides (34 percent), mental health workers (32 percent), infection control nurses (26 percent) and CRNAs (24 percent) are also highly sought after.
Survey respondents identified 6,650 vacancies. The 47 positions included in the survey, which was conducted this summer, account for less than half of all hospital roles. The MHA said it extrapolated that across all positions and hospitals to arrive at an estimated 19,000 vacancies across the state.
Staffing shortages are driving labor costs to an unsustainable level for many hospitals already grappling with margins close to zero or in the red. Hospitals have relied on high-cost temporary staffing to fill critical positions during the pandemic, resulting in average hourly wage rates for travel nurses increasing 90 percent since 2019, according to the report. Massachusetts hospitals reported spending $445 million on temporary registered nurse staffing halfway through the fiscal year, with temporary RN staffing costs increasing 234 percent from fiscal year 2019 to March 2022.
If urgent steps are not taken to address healthcare’s staffing shortage, hospitals will continue to face capacity challenges and overpay for labor, which will lead to fiscal instability, according to Mr. Walsh.
The MHA urged providers, payers, public officials and government agencies to address the workforce crisis by investing in training and education, expanding the workforce pipeline, providing financial support to hospitals and advancing new models of care such as telehealth and at-home care.