Remember Y2K? Thanks to some well-coordinated and perhaps overly expensive industry action, it wound up being a blip on the computer screen. Well, don't look now, but here comes Y2011. That's the year an already chronic shortage of front-line healthcare workers is set to become an epidemic. I very much doubt we will be looking back on 2011 with the same nonchalance as we do the millennium bug.
As we detail this week in our first annual Workforce Report (Starting on p. 24), a confluence of factors unlike anything we have ever seen before will make this the mother of all worker shortages. You know that tired cliche used by the hospital associations to describe the fiscal plight of their members? In this use, the phrase makes sense. This is the real "perfect storm."
You may have heard about the shortage of nurses and allied health professionals, but in this report we will scare you with projections of millions of vacant positions in home care and skilled-nursing facilities. There are even realistic predictions of a physician shortage.
As we describe in our report, demographic changes, new technologies, burnout, poor working conditions and compensation, the lack of a career ladder and a failure to prepare a new generation all have contributed to the worker shortage. Obviously, the biggie is the retirement of the baby boomers, which simultaneously will rob us of workers and cause a leap in the number of senior citizens requiring everything from preventive care to nursing home care. The numbers are mind-boggling.
Equally obviously, there is absolutely nothing the industry can do to prevent the onslaught of this gray-haired monster, although there are some things that can be done to ameliorate the crisis, as our special section shows. I want to pick out just one of those, for it is a common theme sounded by those who are studying this issue. It really boils down to a question of leadership.
Although recruitment and training of new workers are critical, retaining them is even more important, and right behind retention is creating a workplace that people want to stay in. That means valuing workers, seeking their comment and acting on it, creating a viable career ladder for them to climb and making everyone feel he or she is an important part of a team. Doctors need to respect nurses, administrators need to pay attention to morale and worker empowerment, middle managers need to be mentored to eventually take over as chief executives and they need to mentor their replacements. Coordinating all of this will take planning, dedication and follow-through. Only through strong leadership will this occur.
Healthcare should be a noble profession-it still is for many workers. Now everyone has to get with the program. This is a people profession. Yes, we have our laser surgery, PET scanners and drug-eluting stents, but unless there is someone to answer a page at a nursing station or operate the scanner or assist in surgery, healthcare doesn't happen. People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, but they also want respect. Give workers their due and they will be loyal. Otherwise, a hospital position is just another job, one with long hours, high stress and relatively low pay for the skills and effort required.
Creating a better workplace isn't just a matter of spending money, though the competition for a dwindling supply of skilled workers will drive up salaries. There also will have to be a significant effort by federal and state governments, as well as educational institutions, to funnel more young people into the health professions, not empty gestures such as the Nurse Reinvestment Act.
Y2011 is coming, and this time, everyone has to be prepared.
What do you think? Write us with your comments. Via e-mail, it's [email protected]; by fax, dial 312-280-3183.