Why the imminent clinical talent shortage will demand a focus on technology and AI to redesign the work 

Updated on May 24, 2023
Team of Surgeons Operating in the Hospital.

The healthcare sector holds the position of the largest employer in the United States, with one in seven Americans being a part of it. However, recent findings by The Global Workforce Intelligence (GWI) Project, that I recently led, have exposed a dire situation that is currently unfolding and will likely worsen in the years to come. According to the research, there is an imminent demand-supply disparity of 2.1 million healthcare professionals that is expected to emerge by 2025. This equates to one in three healthcare job openings remaining vacant.

To see what can be done about it—and why it is a solution that will require a number of technology-enabled responses—we must ask, why is this figure not currently common knowledge?

It’s because the real depth of the American healthcare staffing crisis only recently emerged as the result of hard digging and the innovative use of machine learning.

1.4 million healthcare worker profiles

Recently, my HR research and advisory company, The Josh Bersin Company, partnered with Santa Clara-based AI talent intelligence platform Eightfold.

Our company used Eightfold’s Talent Intelligence Platform on a new initiative we call the The Global Workforce Intelligence Project. This uses the world’s largest AI-driven database of workforce job roles, skills, and career pathway to delve into what’s really going on with any chosen sector (we’ve also performed a similar probe into the financial services sector, for example).

The scale of the project included over 1.5 billion employee profiles, and that data was, in turn, enriched by public social data and company public data, arranged in a time series format. In addition to reviewing over 1.4 million people profiles of healthcare workers specifically, in more than 300 different companies, the GWI Project also folded in qualitative interviews with Chief HR Officers from over 20 top healthcare providers.

It was this research that revealed that the imminent talent gap is likely to be much bigger than many industry analysts have previously anticipated. 

To add to these insights, we also looked into what can be done to address the gap. There are a number of helpful responses healthcare leaders can and should be taking now to avoid falling off that critical nurse and doctor shortage cliff-edge. Here, I will outline four of the major ones.

Redefine the problem—and the job roles that create it

The simple answer is to recruit more staff, but recruiting solutions can only solve 10-15% of the problem, because the talent out there just does not exist. It’s like fishing in an empty pond.

Instead, you need to be looking to throw away the rulebook and look at how to make the most of the workforce you actually have. Our research showed that up to 48% of the gap in clinical capacity today could be achieved through judicious work and job redesign and new ways of structuring employment.

Done right, up to a million of today’s nursing jobs could be streamlined through automation, technology enablement, or offloading at least some simple work to non-clinically trained co-workers. One such organization doing just that is Providence Health System. Its Chief People Officer, Greg Till, told us: “We can’t address the labor shortage if we don’t think and act fundamentally differently; beyond attracting, developing, and retaining talent in new ways, we need to fundamentally transform the work.”

For Providence and other forward-looking healthcare organizations, that means deconstructing every role and operational process to its lowest level to determine how they might improve caregivers’ experience while optimizing capacity, cost, quality, and the overall patient experience.

Accept the liberation of automation, digital, and AI

Thanks to new waves of automation and technology augmentation that absorb tasks not specific to nursing (i.e., low-level admin and medication delivery), our research showed that healthcare providers can now actually get by with 20% fewer nurses. 

We found that the top-performing healthcare organizations prioritize technology and transformation roles to build new technical capabilities and redesign the work of nurses, to free them up from administration or non-value added work. 

Even better, nurses freed from exasperating admin and data entry will instead more regularly work ‘top of license’—and so do the actual work they came into nursing to do. 

Retain the hard-to-find nursing talent

Nurse turnover has increased significantly in hard-to-fill roles, with some providers reporting turnover of 60% or more. Listening to your top nurses on the sources of dissatisfaction and act accordingly, which could include providing on-site child care, targeted pay and incentives, and redesigning work to be less stressful.

These can all help create a better employee experience and reduce attrition.

And reskill reskill, reskill

One clear outcome from our research was that reskilling solutions are the most sustainable and strategic approach to increasing workforce capacity. 

But where do you find the people to reskill? 

First, look inside your organization, and then (crucially) support them financially wherever possible. This means that forward-thinking employers need to look at new ways of supplying no-cost education and training in key skills like digital to anyone who wants it. 

But, this can’t just be further polishing already qualified people; it has to be about a new way of democratizing careers. Hence the emergence of what we’re calling the non-linear career pathway. This pathway forms the basis for a new covenant with your employees where you commit to augmenting their skill sets and helping them transition into where you both need them to go. It starts with identifying “adjacent” skills and roles that will be an easy shift to clinical roles. For example, a receptionist might get clinical training to become a certified nurse assistant. 

Today, in your hospital, there will be people who wear blue uniforms now who will make superb data scientists; there are people with brown overalls who, with a little aid and encouragement, would be superb, caring medical workers.

One example that encompasses just about all of this best-practice comes from the HR team at NewYork-Presbyterian, the largest single hospital in the U.S. They recently felt the combined pressures of the highly-constrained labor market, nurses leaving the profession, and changing skills requirements due to advancements in technology. Rather than blindly recruiting, they created new pathways opportunities for existing employees through educational programs, and leveraged AI and technology solutions for admin tasks to allow employees to spend more time on patient care. The result is that they are on track to hit an ambitious goal of filling 60% of their available roles from within.

‘A fearless adoption of as much automation as you can get’

Summing up, the healthcare sector is facing a major staffing crisis that is bound to get much worse.

We can’t solve it with people who aren’t there. Instead, it will take a significant commitment to job redesign and flexible approaches to training and certification—augmented by a fearless adoption of data- and Machine Learning-driven decisioning.

By doing that, it’s possible to restructure your workplace and your workforce simultaneously, creating better jobs – and better care for patients.

Kathi Enderes Josh Bersin Company copy
Kathi Enderes

The author is Senior Vice President Research and Global Industry Analyst at The Josh Bersin Company, a U.S.-headquartered research and advisory firm focused on HR and workforce strategies.