Industry Voices—Hospitals will face a new labor shortage after the pandemic

America’s hospitals are winning their heroic campaign against the coronavirus pandemic. As we emerge from this crisis, however, the healthcare sector is bracing for a second, quieter but desperately challenging wave of shortages and logistical bottlenecks. 

With hospitals reopening their doors, there will be a rush of patients desperate to get the care they need.

But it’s far from clear that hospitals will be able to cope with the flood of new patients. Even before the coronavirus hit, America’s hospitals were desperately short-staffed, with the Association of American Medical Colleges forecasting a shortfall of 122,000 physicians by 2032, and an estimated 1.1 million new registered nurses needed by 2022. 

That’s a big problem not just for patients but for hospitals themselves, since elective procedures are a vital driver of hospital revenues. In April, operating room usage fell 61% year-over-year, and hospital earnings fell 174%, according to a Kaufman Hall analysis. For hospitals already struggling with the financial pressures of the pandemic, resuming elective procedures quickly and efficiently is essential if we’re to avoid a sector-wide financial meltdown.

With too few doctors and nurses on staff, though, getting back to business as usual won’t be easy. Solving that problem will require creative thinking by both policymakers and hospital administrators.

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For starters, we should focus on recruiting more medical professionals—regardless of where they were born. There are currently 2.6 million immigrants working in the U.S. healthcare sector, but countless other qualified doctors and nurses, including many educated right here in the United States, are unable to work because of visa issues and other bureaucratic obstacles.

We should also create new incentives to ensure that young people go into healthcare fields, and that newly qualified medical practitioners go to where they’re most needed. 

Perhaps most importantly, we’ll need to make smarter use of the provider-hours available to us, and make sure we’re using every doctor and nurse as efficiently as possible. That might mean slicing through red tape so that doctors and nurses can spend their time treating patients, not fretting about regulations or paperwork. It might also mean finding new ways to outsource time-consuming aspects of procedures, such as setting up and breaking down sterile equipment, to third-party providers.

The telemedicine capabilities we’ve built out during the coronavirus pandemic could also be further expanded. It might be possible to handle preliminary consultations remotely ahead of elective procedures, for instance, allowing hospitals to streamline patient management and reduce wait times in the days and hours leading up to surgical procedures.

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Such steps are just the beginning. As we move beyond this crisis, we’ll need to take a hard look at medical staffing, and start finding creative solutions—at the policy level and at the administrative level—to ensure we’re able to meet our current and future needs.

The bottom line is that despite system-wide shortages of people and equipment, we’re winning the war against the coronavirus. But our hospitals have been strained to a breaking point. It’s vital that we start working now to ensure hospitals have the people and resources they need to recover from this crisis, and to remain financially viable in the months and years to come.

Alyssa currently serves as the CEO of Surgical Solutions, a Chicago-based healthcare services company owned by Sterling Partners.