Four steps to growing and revitalizing the nursing workforce

Healthcare workforce shortages of nurses and other workers are nearing a crisis point as a result of retention challenges, issues around pay differentials and overall costs for contract nurses, combined with an aging workforce.

The large-scale nursing shortage has strained health systems forced to balance an immediate need for nurses with sustainable staffing models. Compensation for contract nurses is a ballooning issue for providers, many of whom have posted significant first and second quarter losses, largely due to labor costs. The nursing exodus, including ongoing retirements, has also affected foundational team infrastructure: There are fewer opportunities for experienced nurses to mentor and support the career development of new nurses. And the staffing turnover rate places additional burdens on nurses, clinical care teams and hospital systems alike.

As many studies have indicated, inadequate staffing levels can impact healthcare access and quality of care, ultimately leading to greater errors, increased morbidity and higher mortality rates.

As the U.S. healthcare system addresses the urgent need for nurses, PwC has seen tangible strategies that can work for providers as they navigate the issue from pipeline to bedside:

  1. Invest in building the workforce pipeline: Healthcare systems need to be more proactive in developing the nursing workforce pipeline. Existing efforts are sporadic, largely driven by the academic system, and lack a unified strategy across educators and the employers of the nursing workforce. Some academic institutions are exploring new approaches, including faster pathways to graduation. Meanwhile, providers can join forces with colleges and universities to help educate and train nurses through innovative clinical learning environments, teaching opportunities for nurses and residency programs for nursing students.
  2. Tailor benefits to the individual needs of nurses: Health system leaders should focus on re-establishing trust with the healthcare staff through robust communication and greater care team investments, including technology upgrades, expanded benefits, and flexible staffing to help teams quickly adapt to fluctuating patient volume. Many different nurse “personas” exist among the nursing workforce, ranging from those seeking to further their education and move into managerial roles to others who want to excel in a more structured environment with a predictable shift schedule. Taking a long-term approach by catering to individual needs could forestall debilitating shortages the next time there’s a major health crisis.  
  3. Address burnout: Providers can benefit by better understanding how to help nurses reclaim their initial passion for their work. With few positions available for new candidates in select critical roles, clinical leadership can redesign the care team model to offer a more satisfying workday experience for nursing staffers and prospective caregivers. This approach could include reimagining traditional workflows and handoffs across the patient care team, providing professional development opportunities for nursing staff (including teaching and preceptor opportunities), and virtual care models.
  4. Leverage technology more effectively: While healthcare has lagged behind some other sectors in adopting technology-enabled strategies, many organizations are building connected health ecosystems, requiring them to embrace cloud and digital, build consumer trust and invest in intelligent technology for the workforce. These initiatives are most effective when they’re informed and guided by clinical technologists so that resultant solutions and capabilities are designed and used in ways that enhance nursing practice. Healthcare organizations can gain the greatest benefit from existing and emerging technologies by focusing on reducing administrative burden, improving communication, improving clinical decision support and leveraging dynamic, acuity-based staffing models.  

Bottom line: The ongoing nursing shortage is unlikely to end soon. Since COVID, there is greater overall appreciation for the critical role that nurses play in healthcare at hospitals and other medical facilities.  Working together, healthcare systems and educational institutions can help fill the staffing gap by using a mix of short-term and long-term strategies designed to bolster the education and training of nurses, and help keep them from leaving the nursing profession.  When healthcare leaders dedicate the time and resources to improving the everyday working experience for nurses, the current crisis could trigger positive, sustained change for nurses and other healthcare workers. By striving for measurable improvements, the industry can emerge stronger for patients as well as the healthcare workforce.

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