By Craig Ahrens
There is an obvious truth exacerbated by the pandemic: there aren’t enough care providers to properly take care of the mounting number of people who need them right now. We hear and see the sickness and death statistics in the news every day. We see the tired faces of the care providers we do have as they do the best that individual can. I’ve seen these faces up close. The pain of being stretched too thin. The painful reality of going to work every day knowing that you can’t provide the level of monitoring and care you want to. The ratio doesn’t work, and, if we’re being honest, hasn’t worked for a long time.
Along with these caregivers and hundreds of thousands of others, I understand that the deaths aren’t numbers – each one is a real person. One of those people was my father. And sadly, the question has to be asked: could this loss and many others have been prevented if there were enough people to care for them?
My family’s story isn’t unique. Our healthcare institutions have been chronically understaffed, and many of the professionals who work in them were burned out even before the pandemic hit. Yet, healthcare is a multi-billion dollar industry that’s dependent on people as a primary resource. According to the American Hospital Association, the U.S. needs more than 200,000 new registered nurses each year to meet increasing healthcare needs and to replace retirees. And that’s just one segment of caregivers.
My father was in a quality nursing home with supervised care and an involved family advocating for him. It was more than a week before I was notified he had COVID. I couldn’t visit him in person and could only speak with the floor nurse by phone. I was assured someone would watch him. Then, his oxygen level dropped, and he was gone. Would my father, a part of the vulnerable population, have survived COVID? I’m one of the many playing the game of “what if” after a loss. But what I do know is that he would have had a fighting chance if the nursing home had been properly staffed to monitor for his oxygen level drop to prompt a hospital visit to receive critical care.
If you didn’t feel the impact of an understaffed or overworked healthcare provider before, pay attention now. I spoke with a friend recently who couldn’t shake the response she received from her pediatrician at a standard visit for her child. She asked the doctor, “How are you?” when he entered, expecting the typical friendly response you receive from most people when you throw this question out daily without much thought. When he responded with, “I’m tired,” and proceeded to speak to how the pandemic is starting to wear on his practice, she thought about it for days after.
There is no hiding this fact anymore. I can’t help my dad, but I can advocate for other patients and families by bringing your attention to the fact that this does and is affecting you. Your health is directly tied to the person that provides your care. I’ve spent a 20-year career studying and changing labor models in healthcare. This work seeks to do one thing: improve how care providers work so patients receive better care. It won’t completely rid the system of burnt out providers. But we have an enormous opportunity right now to embrace change in an archaic employment system in healthcare as the rest of the world’s business sectors adjust theirs.
Workers have spoken and they want flexibility, empowerment, and influence. They want more control over their schedules. The ability to work in a place where they are valued. Healthcare workers and care providers are no different.
Change is possible. Healthcare leadership acknowledges there are challenges within its workforce, yet they continue to throw up every barrier possible to get people to work. Instead of clinging to a futile, traditional approach to full-time work, healthcare facilities can create a more flexible and efficient workforce, and improve medical recruitment and engagement. And it doesn’t need to be costly.
Digital technology has helped businesses worldwide evolve how and where it employs people. It has allowed the people to work on their terms and the employer to better manage the dynamic driver of supply and demand. Staffing models with 100 percent full-time employees simply don’t work anymore. Complicated onboarding, long orientations, low pay and limited scheduling options create an inflexible staffing structure. Your best nurse wants to reduce hours while your new up-and-comer wants to gain experience across a few jobs. Meanwhile, you need the ability to handle surges in demand with flex capacity to tap into a pool of qualified resources.
In industries across the board, the workforce has been fundamentally changed by direct access to local resources, creating a labor ecosystem that is sustainable and more attractive to professionals who want to choose how, when, and where they work. The care facilities that choose to adopt this with the rest of the world’s employers can begin to regain the respect and happiness of those they employ. Indirectly, the families of our most vulnerable can have more trust that their loved one is being properly cared for.
For families facing critical care situations, the healthcare monolith can seem overwhelming. But families and healthcare professionals can make a difference by speaking up. When interacting with a healthcare facility, ask questions about staffing. Be bold in your requests and recommendations. Encourage local politicians to support healthcare modernization. Improvement will ultimately come through healthcare systems being able to garner necessary funding and sustain programs long enough for evident value.
The COVID crisis magnified already existing issues with labor shortages and burnout. Too many families paid the price. It’s time to require our system to re-prioritize its key resource and primary promise: one-on-one patient care from a caregiver or provider who is qualified and satisfied in their job.