Healthcare providers are finding new ways to adequately staff facilities in response to escalating costs for travel nurses and rising COVID-19 cases.
The high demand for nurses has created a competitive market for temporary staffing, leading some healthcare companies to leverage internal resources and change up existing staff structures to meet patients' needs.
The resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic driven by the Delta variant, especially in states with low vaccination rates, is burdening providers whose staffing shortages have worsened just as demand spikes. States including Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas are enduring significant increases in daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths, triggering an urgent need for healthcare professionals.
Those practitioners can command higher wages as a result. Nurse pay rose five-fold during the most competitive period in that labor market during the pandemic, said Betty Jo Rocchio, Mercy's senior vice president and chief nursing officer.
Hospitals can control the cost of temporary staffing by monitoring local and regional COVID-19 statistics and hospital-specific workforce trends, said Blaine Douglas, managing principal at Vizient. "It is also important to have a partner in place to speed up the process for adding staff when the need arises, with flexibility around requirements that do not compromise patient safety," he said.
Mercy Hospital takes a regional approach to staffing, floating its nurses between communities to address needs when they arise and to provide expertise in specific areas, Rocchio said. Mercy aligns the hours of highest patient demand with the hours its nurses are on site, she said.
The hospital supplements its workforce through agency partners that bring in nurses with critical specialties, such those with experience in emergency medicine and intensive care and those who have treated COVID-19 patients, Rocchio said. A large contingent of recent nursing school graduates also provided a staffing boost, she said.
While many healthcare providers thought the cost and difficulty hiring clinical staff would diminish as the pandemic projects, they now anticipate the situation will not change until well into next year, said Beth Feldpush, senior vice president of policy and advocacy at America's Essential Hospitals. The trade group for safety-net hospitals continues to push President Joe Biden's administration to distribute leftover relief funds to help providers afford adequate staffing, she said.
Hospitals must be flexible and agile to function effectively during public health emergencies when it comes to mobilizing, reassigning, and recruiting workers, said Tener Goodwin Veenema, a contributing scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
New approaches to hiring and staffing can also save hospitals money, Veenema said. The pandemic has shown retaining the existing workforce with better salary and benefits is more cost-effective than relying on traveling nurses, she said.
"If the pandemic taught employers anything, it would be to value their workers," David Coppins, co-founder and CEO of IntelyCare, a Quincy, Massachusetts-based healthcare staffing company, said in a news release.
IntelyCare converted all of its workers from contractors to employees and offered them fringe benefits to better compensate them for their heavy workloads and the emotional strain of treating COVID-19 patients, Coppins said. The result has been higher retention and more hiring, he said.
"At IntelyCare, we've heard from nurses firsthand that they want increased health and malpractice insurance, retirement plans, wellness services, childcare discounts, and help with necessities like groceries," Coppins said. "Making this kind of investment can go a long way to ensure that workers feel protected and appreciated."
Although these strategies can be effective, the more permanent solution to rising labor costs is ending the pandemic, Zeenema said. "I hope that we see vaccination rates increasing in order to protect our national healthcare workforce and to protect nurses as one of our most valuable assets," she said.