Hospital CEOs: Workforce shortages outweigh financials as top concern in 2021

Personnel shortages are keeping community hospital CEOs up at night, outweighing other operational problems.

That's according to a poll by the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), marking the first time executives haven’t cited financial challenges as their primary concern since 2004.

Personnel shortages had ranked second in the prior ACHE survey conducted in 2019 and third in 2018 but handily secured the top position among more than 300 CEOs who participated in the survey.

Those executives outlined a broad need for registered nurses (cited by 94% of respondents), technicians (85%), therapists (67%), primary care physicians (45%) and physician specialists (43%) along with other roles at their hospitals.

“Both long- and short-term solutions are needed to address the shortages in critical front-line staff shown in our study to ensure hospitals have workforces that can meet the demands for safe, high-quality care both today and in the future,” Deborah Bowen, president and CEO of ACHE, said in a statement. “Longer-term solutions include increasing the pipeline of staff to these positions, as well as organization-level efforts to increase staff retention. More immediate solutions include supporting and developing all staff, building staff resilience and exploring alternative models of care.”

RELATED: 2022 forecast: 5 trends that will make or break healthcare's labor shortages

Financial challenges still scored high among the respondents, many of whom specifically highlighted the increasing costs for staff and supplies (87%), a need to reduce operating costs (53%) and issues around Medicaid reimbursement (52%) as areas of concern for their hospitals.

Top issues ranked by the CEOs after personnel shortages and financial challenges were, in descending order: patient safety and quality, behavioral health and addiction issues, governmental mandates, access to care, patient satisfaction, physician-hospital relations, technology, population health management and reorganization at their hospitals.

ACHE distributed its survey to 1,327 community hospital CEO members, 310 of whom responded. The organization stressed that their rankings reflect issues “of immediate concern and do not necessarily reflect ongoing hospital priorities.”

Workforce shortages have plagued the healthcare industry throughout the pandemic, even leading some hospitals to consider permitting asymptomatic COVID-positive workers to remain on the front lines. Many hospitals have also increased their dependence on contract labor to plug the gaps despite hefty prices some say verge on price gouging.

State and federal governments have worked to lessen the load with emergency staff deployments and workforce spending programs, yet the industry is pleading for additional relief and more training pathways for the next generation of healthcare workers.