Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on Healthcare Staffing

COVID-19 Nurses

The impact of COVID-19 on healthcare staffing will be far from temporary.

When this pandemic loosens it’s grip on our healthcare system, what lasting impact will COVID-19 have on the healthcare staffing industry? Will the recruitment and management of traveling nurses change for better or for worse? Will the industry come out stronger on the other side? Will healthcare staffing simply go back to the way it was before the virus?

Staffing agency owners and leaders, recruiters and account managers, nurses and allied health professionals, hospital staffers and long term care facilities, along with everybody else involved in the world of healthcare staffing are asking themselves these questions every day.

First let’s unpack the baseline nursing shortage. 

Even prior to COVID-19, the U.S. has maintained a systemic nursing shortage across the board. Simply put, many healthcare facilities already do not have enough clinically prepared healthcare professionals to provide the standard care their patients and communities need. Here are a few key consequences of this nurse shortage:

  • Nurse Burnout. This is a phrase commonly spoken amongst nurses and their loved ones. Nurses that work in ill-staffed hospitals and facilities have long carried the burden of being short handed. This often means having nurse to patient ratios that are larger than most would consider safe, longer shifts, faster patient turn over (not in a good way), and endlessly increasing demands from their employers. These workplace conditions lead to strikes and other breaking points that represent when these nurses have hit their limit and are left with no choice but to demand change. There is almost constant friction between those providing care and those allocating the resources.
  • Inability to Scale. The second result of the baseline nurse shortage has become more apparent now than ever. A system that is already running at max capacity simply does not have the ability to scale for a crisis on the level of COVID-19. We can effectively handle less demanding staffing needs for isolated events, such as natural disasters, using our contingent healthcare workforce. Predictable increases in labor demand, such as seasonal population influx or infectious disease, can typically be filled by travel healthcare professionals without much issue. But when our healthcare system is already running on empty, there’s not much left in the tank to instantaneously ramp up for a simultaneous nationwide staffing crisis such as the unprecedented force of COVID-19.

Healthcare workers have truly stepped up.

We’re not saying by any stretch that there hasn’t been an absolutely amazing level of work put in by our nation’s healthcare professionals, staffing agencies, and healthcare facilities during this crisis. The frontline workers have shown immense strength and courage throughout, and that is one impact of COVID-19 on healthcare staffing that we should never forget.

Nurses have left their family and home state behind to help another in need. Healthcare professionals have returned from retirement to rejoin the workforce. Many are floating to different units, learning new skills, taking on more patients, and working longer hours. They’re doing so without any resistance and with little understanding of what tomorrow will bring. We will survive this crisis because of this sacrifice and dedication to putting others first.

Unfortunately this comes with a cost. Healthcare professionals are becoming sick and are dying due to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and unsafe patient ratios. Many are left with PTSD and have nowhere to turn for help. Most will be left with forever altered views on their role in society. These healthcare professionals have given it their all, despite the fact that they were already worn out and under resourced before this even started.

So how will COVID-19 impact healthcare staffing long term?

We predict improvements in many areas, with a few steps backwards along the way. Let’s start with the bad, then dive into the good so we can all leave on a much needed high note.

Earlier retirement for baby boomers.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has long predicted massive increase in RN demand through at least 2026. Estimated at almost half a million new open needs for RNs between now and then. This is in part because of the baby boomer generation is reaching retirement age faster than our nations nursing schools are graduating new entrants into the workforce.

Given the intense emotional and physical stress these nurses are going through right now, many are going to hang up their stethoscope earlier than they would have otherwise. Nursing is a career with ever increasing demands, especially in the roles we need the most. Nursing is a tough job. Exactly how many of these life long healthcare professionals will COVID-19 prematurely push out the door? More than a handful, unfortunately.

An exodus of bedside nurses.

Nursing is a career with many paths. The clinical nurse is aware of their opportunities away from the bedside. With increasing stress, demands, risks and volatility that accompany the bedside role, it’s understandable for many to give it up for an opportunity that better protects them and their family. Many nurses are going to find it’s their time to pass the torch on direct patient care. There isn’t anything shameful about this whatsoever. However, that leaves us all wondering – who is going to be there to fill the void? 

An increase in the contingent workforce.

The travel nursing industry has been (mostly) steadily growing since its inception in the 1970’s. Having a flexible workforce that can move around the country and quickly address local staffing shortages has been a lifeline for many communities. Whether it is tourist season in Alaska, snowbird season in Arizona, or hurricane season in Florida there are tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of traveling nurses that maneuver and deploy as needed to satisfy these mostly isolated short term demands. 

This complex operation around recruiting, placing, and managing contingent healthcare workers is mostly executed through staffing agencies, thus relieving the burden from hospitals who often don’t have the infrastructure to bring in a bolus of staff on demand. If it were not for these traveling healthcare professionals, and the staffing agencies that place and employ them, we would be in a (much) different boat heading in to and coming out of the COVID-19 storm. 

The critical role these agencies and workers play in saving lives across the nation will not go unnoticed. Our healthcare systems dependency on them will become even more commonplace. And even further irrefutable.

Relaxing of state licensure and certification requirements.

Why is it that a respiratory therapist can work in one state, but not another just a few miles up the road? Why do some states require a license for a radiologic technologist, while others demand certification through a specific certifying body? When will all states be included in the licensure compact for nurses and therapists? The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing our state and federal governments to question the complexity of our fragmented credentialing system, which is one impact of COVID-19 on healthcare staffing we can all get behind.

Both state and federal governments have temporarily reduced the barriers that prevent healthcare professionals from (easily) working across state lines in order to bring in additional staff to help combat COVID-19. We’re hopeful that many of these (often unnecessary) barriers will be torn down for good. We believe that the necessity of these location specific rules will be questioned beyond the coronavirus crisis. Occupations should not be regulated in a way that restricts the flow of critical skilled labor across state lines, particularly for professions that are in high demand. Especially when the only thing keeping the rule in place is a senseless regulation that should have been abolished with the introduction of the internet.

A push for improved technology and processes.

Healthcare staffers and administrative personnel have been forced to work remote with virtually (pun-intended) no notice. Highly manual day-to-day workflows that result from the frankly sad state of technology in the healthcare staffing industry has made it difficult or even impossible to perform. The influx of workers trying to help has caused websites, apps, and placement processes to crash at an alarming rate. Agencies have experienced unprecedented bottlenecks between eager candidates and getting them screened and placed to meet hospital demands. In short, the operational inefficiencies were somewhat manageable at a “typical” pace, but processes and systems were simply unable to adapt and scale with the market changes COVID-19 brought with it

There is a vast need for better healthcare staffing software, and technology in general, in the world of healthcare staffing. Without efficient systems there is no scalability when it comes time to step up. It is one thing when there are no available workers to fill the need. It is an absolute tragedy when a qualified candidate is unable to quickly get where they are needed because of slowness caused by lackluster technology that is not built to serve the modern workforce. We are going to see more and more of these constraints alleviated by better systems, processes, and technology. The industry is fortunate that innovation accelerates during a time of crisis.

Let’s be more prepared the next time around.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made a few things very clear: We need more travel-ready healthcare professionals. We need faster methods of deployment. And we need a plan in place to ensure sufficient equipment is available to protect our healthcare workers (and patients) as they complete the job. We can’t build more healthcare professionals, but we can build a healthcare ecosystem that enables healthcare workers to effectively provide us the support we need in a time of crisis.

Improvements will not happen over night and the full impact of COVID-19 on healthcare staffing is yet to be seen. But as the pandemic recedes and we’ve triaged the damage, we’ll have exposed areas in clear need of improvement. It’s up to us to work together, identify the most critical gaps, and build the solutions that will enable a better outcome the next time around.