Workforce Development

Pandemic Forces Call for Innovative Approaches for the Healthcare Workforce

A woman holding hands with her child walking down a hospital hallway.

Those of us who work in healthcare are well accustomed to change. From long-term trends like the aging of the population, to more rapid developments like HIPAA and the Affordable Care Act, we have proven our ability to work effectively amidst constantly shifting sands. Even so, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a level of adjustment and adaptation none of us had ever before experienced.

As we emerge from more than two years of navigating these intense waters, we find ourselves in an environment that looks very different. The pre-pandemic forces shaping healthcare – and its workforce – are still present, along with a host of new factors.

Three pre-pandemic forces that have not gone away:

1. Value-Based Care

Long before the pandemic arrived, hospitals were experiencing the gradual, ongoing shift away from fee-for-service and toward value-based care. This new model necessitates new approaches for delivering care and increased coordination across the continuum. This, in turn, requires adjustments in both workforce composition and training— this is often referred to as reskilling and upskilling the healthcare workforce.

2. Social Determinants of Health

Shifting healthcare delivery toward prioritization of outcomes has also amplified attention to all the factors impacting health. This means not just what happens inside the walls of a hospital or a physician practice, but also what happens to patients when they are out in their communities, like whether they are living in safe housing and have access to healthy foods. These are otherwise known as social determinants of health and they also require new roles and skills in the healthcare workforce, including building partnerships and adding community health workers.

3. Systemic Racism & Health Equity

A desperately needed shift in the American consciousness has taken place over the last couple of years, recognizing the urgency of eliminating systemic racism and fostering health equity. Healthcare employers must respond – and many are – by ensuring they are providing the education and training necessary for their workforce, as well as actively seeking out diversity when they add new employees.

Three pandemic-driven changes that have emerged:

1. Explosion of Telehealth

It is not news to anyone working in healthcare that the pandemic sparked explosive growth in the demand for, and volume of, telehealth services. As the country moved into lockdown in early 2020, and many hospitals paused non-essential services, the federal government loosened requirements surrounding telehealth to enable more people the opportunity to receive care. This mode of care delivery requires shifts in healthcare workforce roles and workflows. While there has been a gradual return to business as usual in healthcare, what we are seeing is the new business as usual continues to include significant demand for telehealth services.

2. Behavioral Health

A shortage of behavioral health workers pre-dates the pandemic but has grown like wildfire in its wake. The stress of being surrounded by illness and death while at the same time being isolated from loved ones and normal routines during lockdown has created a mental health crisis and exacerbated substance use disorders throughout this country. Going forward, it will be important to develop curricula and clinical placements that better prepare nurses and other clinicians to provide integrated behavioral health and primary care in ambulatory and community-based settings.

3. Overall Workforce Supply

Behavioral health is not the only sector of healthcare experiencing workforce shortages, of course. Pandemic-induced burnout and the great resignation are impacting healthcare workforce supply across the board. According to the American Hospital Association (AHA), in November 2021, nearly 600,000 healthcare workers quit their jobs and nearly 18% of healthcare workers reported they had left their job since the start of the pandemic. At the same time, about six in 10 healthcare workers said pandemic-related stress had harmed their mental health. AHA is predicting a shortage of 3.2 million healthcare workers by 2026. While growing the pipeline is important, it is not an immediate solution and will not alone solve the problem. Retention is critical. And, of course, retaining healthcare workers is multi-faceted, involving a variety of strategies from providing professional development opportunities and offering competitive compensation to promoting work-life balance and creating strong bonds among employees through mentorships.

Even with the growth of technology, automation and artificial intelligence we are witnessing across many industries, healthcare remains, at its core, workforce focused. Any change impacting this sector – and there always be more change coming – will require us to adapt and evolve as healthcare workers, administrators and leaders.

About The Center for Health Affairs

As the nation’s first regional hospital association, The Center for Health Affairs serves as the collective voice and leading advocate for 36 hospitals across nine counties in Northeast Ohio. With a history dating back over 100 years, The Center aims to enhance the effectiveness of the healthcare community, and the health of the communities it serves, by providing expertise, resources and solutions to address the challenges currently being faced by the region’s healthcare providers. The Center’s efforts focus on areas in which member hospitals and their communities can benefit from a regional approach, including emergency preparedness, public policy and advocacy. finance and reimbursement, and community health. Through its business affiliates, CHAMPS Group Purchasing and The Essentials Group, The Center provides a broad level of professional services to its members. Headquartered in downtown Cleveland, The Center is honored to be named as one of The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Top Workplaces; Crain’s Cleveland Business and Best Companies Group’s Best Employers in Ohio; and Modern Healthcare’s Best Places to Work in Healthcare.