Since the pandemic began, one warning has tolled like a bell of doom: once contagion hit hospital staff, healthcare services would become dangerously limited.
Well, here we are. Staff are calling in sick, care is delayed, surgeries postponed, and patients sit in the ED waiting room for hours. And it’s not just COVID; a number of pre-pandemic factors set the stage for this crisis. It’s time to implement both long-term solutions and new strategies that can mitigate nursing shortages right now.
Birth of a Nursing Shortage
We had a national nursing shortage before the pandemic, with industry experts predicting a need for 1.2 million new registered nurses (RNs) by 2030 to compensate.
Another factor: the trend of specializing nursing care. For years now, nurses have been siloed into specialties, which elevated care in some respects. But when the pandemic hit, the pool of available Critical Care and emergency department RNs just wasn’t sufficient compared to the growing need for care.
So how do we provide safe, competent care in specialized settings?
4 Solutions to Today’s Staffing Crisis
Right now, as short-term fixes, hospitals can:
- Reallocate staffing. Let’s start with the hardest thing. Prioritize staffing needs so you can support the most critical units like ICU and ED with bed capacity and services. That means you’ll place nurses who are traditionally in Labor and Delivery or other units in the ED – which leads to our next step.
- Partner reallocated nurses with ED nurses. Nurses new to ICU and ED won’t have all the requisite skills, so partner each one with an experienced nurse. A med-surg nurse can focus on the primary tasks he’s familiar with while the seasoned ED nurse can handle the high acuity patient work.
- Use telemedicine. Facilities in rural or remote locations are struggling to find new nurses in their region. Virtually connecting to outside specialists is a quick way to provide second opinions, back up staff, and better manage capacity.
- Bring in an outside CCRT deployment. Critical Care Response Teams can be deployed in 24-48 hours, assisting with patient care while simultaneously training staff in new skills and protocols. Hospitals can deal with surges while upskilling their staff for future needs.
Long-Term Solutions: Changing Nurse Culture
The nursing shortage won’t be fixed any time soon. When the pandemic recedes, hospitals will still need to replenish their workforce – and keep them on staff. Here are a few ideas.
Educational programs focused on specific competencies and cross-training modules can build more long-term staff agility, so they can function safely and appropriately in specialty departments. Because specialized units typically won’t hire new grads, precept programs can help inexperienced nurses learn from more seasoned nurses.
Finally, hospitals and healthcare systems must take a clear look at their nursing culture. That means surveys, focus groups, and honest conversations. Hospitals simply can’t afford to lose staff to bullying or a perception of being undervalued – and with 61.9% of healthcare workers experiencing some form of violence on the job, workplace support is a must.
Nurses have been heroic throughout this pandemic, but they are still human. The silver lining of the current shortage may be new care delivery models and workflow innovation. Increasing efficiencies, education, and support can help seasoned nurses offer the best of their experience and skill – and help the coming generation enter a positive nursing culture.