Monday’s walkout of tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance staff was the largest in the NHS’s 75-year history.
Labor demonstrations have been ongoing across the past few months, as workers demand higher pay and better working conditions amid rampant national inflation and increased workloads.
Specific demands vary by union and nation within the United Kingdom. Welsh nurses called off their strike this week to review a proposal from Wales’ Labour Party-run government, while the Royal College of Nurses, the UK’s largest nursing union, has countered a nominal 5 percent pay increase proposal with demands for a five percent pay raise on top of inflation, which topped 10 percent in Britain in December.
The Gist: A glance at our neighbors across the pond shows that the US healthcare system is not the only one currently experiencing a labor crisis.
The UK’s nationalized system has also failed to shield its workers from the combined impact of COVID burnout and inflation. But the NHS, as the UK’s largest employer and perennial object of political maneuvering, is more susceptible to organized labor actions.
In contrast, American healthcare unions, which only covered 17 percent of the country’s nurses in 2021, must negotiate with local employers, whose responses to their demands vary.
While this may enhance the bargaining power of US health system leaders, it also heightensthe risk that we will fail to adequately secure our nursing workforce, a key national resource already in short supply, for the longer term.
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.
Those who left their jobs during the Great Resignation did so out of more than just frustration, but instead used it as an opportunity to follow their dreams and aspirations, writes Whitney Johnson, CEO of Disruption Advisors, a talent development company, in the Harvard Business ReviewApril 6.
The pandemic forced many people to reevaluate many facets of their lives, from where to live to how to spend more time with family. Ms. Johnson argues that workers’ thoughts on changing the way they work is a good thing, giving workers agency to discover new aspirations and proactively seek them.
“The Great Resignation appellation is, I believe, mistaken. Most workers are not simply quitting. They are following a dream refined in pandemic adversity. They are aspiring to grow in the ways most important to them,” she writes.
Even for those who have been forced out of the workforce, like working mothers and caregivers, Ms. Johnson argues that it will lead to a boom of innovative new businesses, created by those resourceful workers who find another way to work outside the realms of traditional industry.
She also states that this “great aspiration” is beneficial for employers too, who can make the most of a fresh pool of talent, full of newly motivated employees who are dedicated and searching for meaning.
Health system executives continue to tell us that the top issue now keeping them up at night is workforce engagement.
Exhausted from the COVID experience, facing renewed cost pressures, and in the midst of a once-in-a-generation rethink of work-life balance among employees, health systems are having increasing difficulty filling vacant positions, and holding on to key staff—particularly clinical talent. One flashpoint that has emerged recently, according to leaders we work with, is the growing divide between those working a “hybrid” schedule—part at home, part in the office—and those who must show up in person for work because of their roles. Largely this split has administrative staff on one side and clinical workers on the other, leading doctors, nurses, and other clinicians to complain that they have to come into work (and have throughout the pandemic), while their administrative colleagues can continue to “Zoom in”. There’s growing resentment among those who don’t have the flexibility to take a kid to baseball practice at 3 o’clock, or let the cable guy in at noon without scheduling time off, making the sense of burnout and malaise even more intense. Add to that the resurgence in COVID admissions in some markets, and the “help wanted” situation in the broader economy, and the health system workforce crisis looks worse and worse. Beyond raising wages, which is likely inevitable for most organizations, there is a need to rethink job design and work patterns, to allow a tired, frustrated, and—thanks to the in-person/WFH divide—envious workforce the chance to recover from an incredibly difficult year.
This week we caught up with a benefits consultant colleague to get her perspective on how employers are thinking about health benefits as they come out of the pandemic. “It seems like employers and health systems have switched places in their enthusiasm for direct contracting,” she shared.
Prior to the pandemic, employer interest in working directly with a health system around a narrow network product to deliver coordinated care was growing, but there were few systems offering attractive solutions. Now more health systems are ready, but the number of employees working remotely has created a new obstacle for direct contracting.
One chief people officer for a large employer noted that while some employees have relocated permanently, others are still hopping from one Airbnb to another: “It’s at the point where I have no idea where half of our people are living on any given day.” In this new “employee diaspora”, some firms are seeing ten percent or more of their formerly office-based workforce now located outside the market, creating challenges for a geographically concentrated network to meet their needs.
How many companies will allow permanent telework, and how many employees will take them up on it, remains to be seen (our colleague suggested we’ll know more in the fall, after the return to school anchors many families in place). But for now, the best employer partners for direct contracting efforts are likely mid-sized regional employers, who are more likely to retain a local workforce, and face fewer obstacles to making benefit design changes.
A topic that’s come up in almost every discussion we’ve had with health system executive teams and boards recently is workforce strategy. Beyond the immediate political debate about whether temporary unemployment benefits are exacerbating a shortage of workers, there’s a growing recognition that the healthcare workforce is approaching something that looks like a “perfect storm”.
The workforce is mentally and physically exhausted from the pandemic, which has taken a toll both professionally and personally. Many workers are rethinking their work-life balance equations in the wake of a difficult year, during which working conditions and family responsibilities shifted dramatically. That, along with broader economic inflation, is driving demands for higher wages and a more robust set of benefits.
Meanwhile, many health systems are shifting into cost-cutting mode, due to COVID-related shifts in demand patterns and continued downward pressure on reimbursement rates, forcing a renewed focus on workforce productivity.
These combined forces threaten to create a negative spiral, which could lead to even worse shortages and deteriorating workplace engagement. It’s striking how quickly the “hero” narrative has shifted to a “crisis” narrative, and we agree completely with one health system board member who told us recently that workforce strategy is now the number one issue on his agenda.
No easy answers here, but we’ll continue to report on innovative approaches to addressing these difficult challenges.
Advocate Aurora Health is implementing a new work model that will move 12,000 non-clinical employee positions in finance, consumer experience and more departments to remote-first operations, according to a May 21 BizTimes report.
Under the new work model, dubbed WorkForward, the 12,000 non-clinical employees who have been working remotely throughout the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to do so permanently; these employees will “no longer have dedicated workspaces” like cubicles or offices at the health system’s Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Ill.-based offices, the publication reports.
Affected departments include finance and accounting, consumer experience and public affairs, strategy and business development, government relations and administration. Employees will be able to choose to work from home, at a coffee shop or other locations, Advocate Aurora Chief Human Resources Officer Kevin Brady told BizTimes.
“For some departments, remote-first may come to mean monthly team meetings in the office, once-a-week collaboration sessions or a trip to an outside-the-box location that inspires the team,” he said.
Advocate Aurora will “regularly evaluate” its real estate needs with the work model transition; the health system recently vacated non-headquarters office space when its lease ended at the end of 2020. Advocate Aurora is also reconfiguring its remaining facilities to create more “innovative and productive” work areas that employees can use for meetings or temporary office space, according to the report.
Estimations show that between now and March 20, 7% of U.S. counties will experience “significant strains” on their hospital workforces.
Despite recent declines in coronavirus cases nationwide, many hospitals may still have workforce shortages over the next 30 days due to COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to estimates from George Washington University.
The university’s Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity recently launched its COVID-19 County Workforce Estimator, which predicts that between now and March 20, 7% of U.S. counties will experience “significant strains” on their hospital workforces. It attributes the strain to long-standing staffing problems with the added pressure of the pandemic.
It also predicts that 209 counties will need to implement crisis workforce strategies due to its analysis that ICU doctors in those counties will be forced to take care of 24 or more patients at a time. Hospitals in those locations will likely need to use non-ICU-trained staff to help care for patients, the analysis said.
Further, the tool suggests that 12 counties will need to use contingency workforce strategies that include adding more patients per team, float pools and overtime due to COVID-19 hospitalization rates of 25% or more.
While it estimates a portion of counties will face staffing strains over the next month, the estimator calculated that 2,189 counties will be able to maintain normal workforce strategies due to COVID-19 hospitalization rates of 25% or less.
An additional 736 counties either did not have a hospital or didn’t have enough data to assess potential COVID-19 workforce strains.
The estimator tool was built in collaboration with Premier, a healthcare improvement company, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and IQVIA, a healthcare data and analytics organization.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Healthcare staffing shortages have been a worry for some time now due to the nation’s increasingly aging population, but COVID-19 has only added to the concern.
Even before the pandemic, studies predicted physician staffing shortages by upwards of 140,000 by 2030, as well as shortages in-home health aides, nursing assistants, nurse practitioners and medical lab technicians by 2025.
Labor experts suggest hospitals develop a proactive response to staff shortages, and the George Washington estimator was designed to do exactly that, according to Clese Erikson, the principal investigator on the project and deputy director of the Health Equity Workforce Research Center.
Local leaders and hospital administrators can use the tool to gauge their county’s ability to care for COVID-19 hospitalized patients and others who need critical care services.
THE LARGER TREND
Outside of the ICU, many hospitals are also experiencing nursing shortages for several reasons, including the possibility that nurses could get $150 an hour to be a traveling nurse versus the $48 an hour they are paid as hospital staff.
In other cases, nurses had to choose between work and having children at home while schools were not holding in-person sessions. Some nurses who were close to retirement chose to leave while others left for work outside of acute care settings.
On top of workforce shortages, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led many healthcare workers to experience strains on their mental health, including anxiety, stress, depression and loneliness.
ON THE RECORD
“The shortages could occur just as public health officials warn that variants of the coronavirus are spreading in the United States and could trigger a sharp rise in the number of Americans infected,” Erikson said.
“Our new online estimator will help county and local public health officials project shortages in the near future and take steps to help keep staffing at safe levels.”
Like a lot of people, I have really gotten into listening to podcasts over the last year. They’re such an immersive way to learn about the world, and I like how the format lets you dive as deep on a topic as you want. So, I was inspired to start one of my own—but I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.
I couldn’t ask for a better partner on this project than Rashida Jones. A mutual friend suggested that the two of us might have a lot to talk about, and it turned out he was right. I already knew she was a talented actor, but I was impressed by her thoughtful perspective on the world. So, we decided to start a podcast that lets us think through some of today’s most pressing problems together. In our first episode, Rashida and I explore a big question that is top of mind for many people: what will the world look like after COVID-19?
I know it’s hard to imagine right now while new cases are surging around the world, but there will come a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. I think it’s safe to assume that society will be changed forever, given how disruptive the virus has been to virtually every part of our lives.
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before life truly gets back to “normal.” Rashida and I were joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to discuss what to expect in the months to come. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Dr. Fauci on a number of global health issues over the years, including the quest for an HIV vaccine and cure. He’s such a quiet and unassuming guy normally, so it’s been wild to watch him become a huge celebrity.
Dr. Fauci and I are both optimistic that a vaccine will bring an end to the pandemic at some point in the near future. But what the world looks like after that is a lot less clear. I suspect that some of the digitization trends we’ve seen—especially in the areas of online learning, telemedicine, and remote work—will become a regular part of our lives. I hope this episode leaves you hopeful about the future and curious about what comes next.
President-elect Joe Biden’s healthcare agenda: building on the ACA, value-based care, and bringing down drug prices.
In many ways, Joe Biden is promising a return to the Obama administration’s approach to healthcare:
Building on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through incremental expansions in government-subsidized coverage
Continuing CMS’ progress toward value-based care
Bringing down drug prices
Supporting modernization of the FDA
Bolder ideas, such as developing a public option, resolving “surprise billing,” allowing for negotiation of drug prices by Medicare, handing power to a third party to help set prices for some life sciences products, and raising the corporate tax rate, could be more challenging to achieve without overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate.
Biden is likely to mount an intensified federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, enlisting the Defense Production Act to compel companies to produce large quantities of tests and personal protective equipment as well as supporting ongoing deregulation around telehealth. The Biden administration also will likely return to global partnerships and groups such as the World Health Organization, especially in the area of vaccine development, production and distribution.
What can health industry executives expect from Biden’s healthcare proposals?
Broadly, healthcare executives can expect an administration with an expansionary agenda, looking to patch gaps in coverage for Americans, scrutinize proposed healthcare mergers and acquisitions more aggressively and use more of the government’s power to address the pandemic. Executives also can expect, in the event the ACA is struck down, moves by the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers to develop a replacement. Healthcare executives should scenario plan for this unlikely yet potentially highly disruptive event, and plan for an administration marked by more certainty and continuity with the Obama years.
All healthcare organizations should prepare for the possibility that millions more Americans could gain insurance under Biden. His proposals, if enacted, would mean coverage for 97% of Americans, according to his campaign website. This could mean millions of new ACA customers for payers selling plans on the exchanges, millions of new Medicaid beneficiaries for managed care organizations, millions of newly insured patients for providers, and millions of covered customers for pharmaceutical and life sciences companies. The surge in insured consumers could mirror the swift uptake in the years following the passage of the ACA.
Biden’s plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic
Biden is expected to draw on his experience from H1N1 and the Ebola outbreaks to address the COVID-19 pandemic with a more active role for the federal government, which many Americans support. These actions could shore up the nation’s response in which the federal government largely served in a support role to local, state and private efforts.
Three notable exceptions have been the substantial federal funding for development of vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Congress’ aid packages and the rapid deregulatory actions taken by the FDA and CMS to clear a path for medical products to be enlisted for the pandemic and for providers, in particular, to be able to respond to it.
Implications of Biden’s 2020 health agenda on healthcare payers, providers and pharmaceutical and life sciences companies
The US health system has been slowly transforming for years into a New Health Economy that is more consumer-oriented, digital, virtual, open to new players from outside the industry and focused on wellness and prevention. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated some of those trends. Once the dust from the election settles, companies that have invested in capabilities for growth and are moving forcefully toward the New Health Economy stand to gain disproportionately.
Shortages of clinicians and foreign medical students may continue to be an issue for a while
The Trump administration made limiting the flow of immigrants to the US a priority. The associated policy changes have the potential to exacerbate shortages of physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers, including medical students. These consequences have been aggravated by the pandemic, which dramatically curtailed travel into the US.
Healthcare organizations, especially rural ones heavily dependent on foreign-born employees, may find themselves competing fiercely for workers, paying higher salaries and having to rethink the structure of their workforces.
Providers should consider reengineering primary care teams to reflect the patients’ health status and preferences, along with the realities of the workforce on the ground and new opportunities in remote care.
Focus on modernizing the supply chain
Biden and lawmakers from both parties have been raising questions about life sciences’ supply chains. This focus has only intensified because of the pandemic and resulting shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tests and other medical products.
Investment in advanced analytics and cybersecurity could allow manufacturers to avoid disruptive stockouts and shortages, and deliver on the promise of the right treatment to the right patient at the right time in the right place.
Drug pricing needs a long-term strategy
Presidents and lawmakers have been talking about drug prices for decades; few truly meaningful actions have been implemented. Biden has made drug pricing reform a priority.
Drug manufacturers may need to start looking past the next quarter to create a new pricing strategy that maximizes access in local markets through the use of data and analytics to engage in more value-based pricing arrangements.
New financing models may help patients get access to drugs, such as subscription models that provide unlimited access to a therapy at a flat rate.
Companies that prepare now to establish performance metrics and data analytics tools to track patient outcomes will be well prepared to offer payers more sustainable payment models, such as mortgage or payment over time contracts, avoiding the sticker shock that comes with these treatments and improving uptake at launch.
Pharmaceutical and life sciences companies will likely have to continue to offer tools for consumers like co-pay calculators and use the contracting process where possible to minimize out-of-pocket costs, which can improve adherence rates and health outcomes.
View interoperability as an opportunity to embrace, not a threat to avoid or ignore
While the pandemic delayed many of the federal interoperability rule deadlines, payers and providers should use the extra time to plan strategically for an interoperable future.
Payers should review business partnerships in this new regulatory environment.
Digital health companies and new entrants may help organizations take advantage of the opportunities that achieving interoperability may present.
Companies should consider the legal risks and take steps to protect their reputations and relationships with customers by thinking through issues of consent and data privacy.
Health organizations should review their policies and consider whether they offer protections for customers under the new processes and what data security risks may emerge. They should also consider whether business associate agreements are due in more situations.
Plan for revitalized ACA exchanges and a booming Medicare Advantage market
The pandemic has thrown millions out of work, generating many new customers for ACA plans just as the incoming Biden administration plans to enrich subsidies, making more generous plans within reach of more Americans.
Payers in this market should consider how and where to expand their membership and appeal to those newly eligible for Medicare. Payers not in this market should consider partnerships or acquisitions as a quick way to enter the market, with the creation of a new Medicare Advantage plan as a slower but possibly less capital-intensive entry into this market.
Payers and health systems should use this opportunity to design more tailored plan options and consumer experiences to enhance margins and improve health outcomes.
Payers with cash from deferred care and low utilization due to the pandemic could turn to vertical integration with providers as a means of investing that cash in a manner that helps struggling providers in the short term while positioning payers to improve care and reduce its cost in the long term.
Under the Trump administration, the FDA has approved historic numbers of generic drugs, with the aim of making more affordable pharmaceuticals available to consumers. Despite increased FDA generics approvals, generics dispensed remain high but flat, according to HRI analysis of FDA data.
Pharmaceutical company stocks, on average, have climbed under the Trump administration, with a few notable dips due to presidential speeches criticizing the industry and the pandemic.
Providers have faced some revenue cuts, particularly in the 340B program, and many entered the pandemic in a relatively weak liquidity position. The pandemic has led to layoffs, pay cuts and even closures. HRI expects consolidation as the pandemic continues to curb the flow of patients seeking care in emergency departments, orthopedic surgeons’ offices, dermatology suites and more.
Lawmakers and politicians often use bold language, and propose bold solutions to problems, but the government and the industry itself resists sudden, dramatic change, even in the face of sudden, dramatic events such as a global pandemic. One notable exception to this would be a decision by the US Supreme Court to strike down the ACA, an event that would generate a great deal of uncertainty and disruption for Americans, the US health industry and employers.