By Tami Kamin Meyer
If the positive news released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding healthcare hiring in March continues to trend, the once-dire employment situation in the industry may be easing.
According to the Labor Department’s April 7 report, the healthcare industry added 34,000 jobs in March. While that number represents fewer than the 54,000 healthcare jobs added to the U.S. economy in both January and February, the overall news is positive. Additional statistics released in the report indicate the American healthcare industry is projected to add approximately 2.6 million jobs from 2021 to 2031. That uptick is primarily attributed to an aging American population and a higher prevalence of chronic conditions.
Meanwhile, salaries in the medical industry are experiencing an increase. Although healthcare wages had been declining since mid-2022, they are trending upwards. In February 2023, healthcare wages grew by 4.3% year over year, compared with the 4.6% increase enjoyed by private sector wages.
Wage growth in the medical industry also relies heavily on the care setting. For example, wages in ambulatory care settings grew 3.8% while those employed by hospitals, nursing, and residential care situations increased an average of 4.7%.
Despite the moderate gains in hiring across the healthcare industry, patients continue to be underserved.
Healthcare staffing gaps and the pandemic
It is not accurate to blame the current employment situation in the healthcare field squarely on the pandemic. Certainly, the mass exodus of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals throughout the crisis created a huge void in healthcare staffing in the United States. It is more difficult for rural communities – where hospitals don’t pay as well as their metropolitan competitors and the offerings for social and educational growth are also limited – to attract top candidates.
Doug Duskin, CEO of AVEL eCare, noted that medical professionals continue to leave the profession through retirement, working fewer hours, resignations, and even hospital closures, so COVID is not the only reason people have left the medical profession. That’s where a company like Avel, which partners with healthcare facilities seeking to utilize technology to maintain its level of services, comes in.
“We help cover gaps in their care scheduling,” Duskin said.
Technology’s increasing impact
In Duskin’s mind, technology is the answer for hospitals and other medical facilities mired somewhere between being fully staffed and needing to fill numerous positions within a medical organization. Rural communities suffer even more, making telemedicine an increasingly accepted and respected method of treating patients.
“Staffing is a problem everywhere but particularly in rural areas,” he said.
“Roughly 33% to 35% of U.S. (residents) live outside a large metropolitan area. Especially as the population ages and chronic conditions exist,” Duskin said, noting that technological interventions will be needed to provide medical care to patients in both those areas and big cities.
Another concern rural patients often face is whether they can trust the medical treatment they are receiving because doctors and nurses tend to be greener and medical equipment is aging. That’s because as the numbers of experienced doctors, nurses, surgeons and more leave the profession, they are slowly being replaced by younger, less experienced medical professionals.
“There is a huge concern whether they can receive the healthcare they need to stay in the areas in which they live,” Duskin said. “We must use technology to drive efficiency.”
The losing end of the deal
Jonathon Lee, an American now living and working in England, has been involved in the healthcare industry in various ways. He earned a doctorate in physical therapy, is a board-certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy, and holds an MBA.
In his opinion, the chasm between what patients need and the holes that remain in healthcare staffing “is a huge problem.” He bases this belief on three considerations:
- The quality of care a patient receives due to fewer nurses, doctors, and others needed to run the goliath that is healthcare
- A patient’s ability to patronize the same healthcare providers their entire lives, allowing for continuity and trust
- The ability of the healthcare industry to regenerate the talent needed to meet the medical needs of American patients
“The COVID-19 pandemic led to burnout (in the healthcare industry), so more people are leaving healthcare, further straining staffing woes. New nurses are immediately overworked and can and do get burned out just like more experienced nurses,” Lee said.
With a large exodus of experienced healthcare staffers, the industry has been forced to increase its reliance on younger, less knowledgeable doctors, nurses, and more. However, Lee noted, younger staffers are often saddled with immense student loan debt after graduation. Therefore, they are often attracted to higher paying positions, like being a travel nurse, versus toiling in a hospital setting, Lee said.
“If you’re young and not likely to get sick, you’ll often choose the higher paying job to pay off student loans,” he said. That reality is impacting the industry’s ability to fill open opportunities requiring a steady work schedule and employees who desire the stability of setting roots in a community. While hospital positions usually offer better benefits than do short-term opportunities, such as travel nursing situations, Gen Z staffers tend to be less concerned about that.
That translates into younger candidates in the medical field accepting higher-paying, short-term positions without job security, said Lee. “From a patient’s perspective, a lot of turnovers of clinicians hurts because they are not seeing the same clinician over and over. That becomes challenging.”
Although COVID certainly did not help matters, Lee doesn’t believe the pandemic alone is responsible for current staffing concerns in healthcare. “The student loan crisis destabilized the industry. It’s the patient who suffers,” he said.
How the healthcare industry is responding to its staffing concerns
Hiring challenges have forced many hospitals and medical facilities to get creative when it comes to finding qualified employees to fill their roles. According to medical marketing specialist Dr. Hilda Wong, they are implementing alternate strategies to attract potential new hires, such as:
- Staffing agencies
- Recruiting temporary employees
- Providing sign-on bonuses
Moreover, some facilities are “spending money on technology to improve employee productivity and simplify procedures,” said Dr. Wong. While she acknowledged it will take time for hospitals and medical institutions to staff themselves to the point where they can meet the increasing demand for healthcare in the United States, she seems heartened. “Recruiting in the industry is improving,” she said.