The less-discussed consequence of healthcare's labor shortage

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The healthcare industry's staffing shortage crisis has had clear consequences for care delivery and efficiency, forcing some health systems to pause nonemergency surgeries or temporarily close facilities. Less understood is how these shortages are affecting care quality and patient safety. 

A mix of high COVID-19 patient volume and staff departures amid the pandemic has put hospitals at the heart of a national staffing shortage, but there is little national data available to quantify the shortages' effects on patient care. 

The first hint came last month from a CDC report that found healthcare-associated infections increased significantly in 2020 after years of steady decline. Researchers attributed the increase to challenges related to the pandemic, including staffing shortages and high patient volumes, which limited hospitals' ability to follow standard infection control practices. 

"That's probably one of the first real pieces of data — from a large scale dataset — that we've seen that gives us some sense of direction of where we've been headed with the impact of patient outcomes as a result of the pandemic," Patricia McGaffigan, RN, vice president of safety programs for the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, told Becker's. "I think we're still trying to absorb much of what's really happening with the impact on patients and families."

An opaque view into national safety trends

Because of lags in data reporting and analysis, the healthcare industry lacks clear insights into the pandemic's effect on national safety trends.

National data on safety and quality — such as surveys of patient safety culture from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality — can often lag by several quarters to a year, according to Ms. McGaffigan. 

"There [have been] some declines in some of those scores more recently, but it does take a little while to be able to capture those changes and be able to put those changes in perspective," she said. "One number higher or lower doesn't necessarily indicate a trend, but it is worth really evaluating really closely."

For example, 569 sentinel events were reported to the Joint Commission in the first six months of 2021, compared to 437 for the first six months of 2020. However, meaningful conclusions about the events' frequency and long-term trends cannot be drawn from the dataset, as fewer than 2 percent of all sentinel events are reported to the Joint Commission, the organization estimates.

"We may never have as much data as we want," said Leah Binder, president and CEO of the Leapfrog Group. She said a main area of concern is CMS withholding certain data amid the pandemic. Previously, the agency has suppressed data for individual hospitals during local crises, but never on such a wide scale, according to Ms. Binder.  

CMS collects and publishes quality data for more than 4,000 hospitals nationwide. The data is refreshed quarterly, with the next update scheduled for October. This update will include additional data for the fourth quarter of 2020.

"It is important to note that CMS provided a blanket extraordinary circumstances exception for Q1 and Q2 2020 data due to the COVID-19 pandemic where data was not required nor reported," a CMS spokesperson told Becker's. "In addition, some current hospital data will not be publicly available until about July 2022, while other data will not be available until January 2023 due to data exceptions, different measure reporting periods and the way in which CMS posts data."

Hospitals that closely monitor their own datasets in more near-term windows may have a better grasp of patient safety trends at a local level. However, their ability to monitor, analyze and interpret that data largely depends on the resources available, Ms. McGaffigan said. The pandemic may have sidelined some of that work for hospitals, as clinical or safety leaders had to shift their priorities and day-to-day activities. 

"There are many other things besides COVID-19 that can harm patients," Ms. Binder told Becker's. "Health systems know this well, but given the pandemic, have taken their attention off these issues. Infection control and quality issues are not attended to at the level of seriousness we need them to be."

What health systems should keep an eye on 

While the industry is still waiting for definitive answers on how staffing shortages have affected patient safety, Ms. Binder and Ms. McGaffigan highlighted a few areas of concern they are watching closely. 

The first is the effect limited visitation policies have had on families — and more than just the emotional toll. Family members and caregivers are a critical player missing in healthcare safety, according to Ms. Binder. 

When hospitals don't allow visitors, loved ones aren't able to contribute to care, such as ensuring proper medication administration or communication. Many nurses have said they previously relied a lot on family support and vigilance. The lack of extra monitoring may contribute to the increasing stress healthcare providers are facing and open the door for more medical errors.

Which leads Ms. Binder to her second concern — a culture that doesn't always respect and prioritize nurses. The pandemic has underscored how vital nurses are, as they are present at every step of the care journey, she continued. 

To promote optimal care, hospitals "need a vibrant, engaged and safe nurse workforce," Ms. Binder said. "We don't have that. We don't have a culture that respects nurses." 

Diagnostic accuracy is another important area to watch, Ms. McGaffigan said. Diagnostic errors — such as missed or delayed diagnoses, or diagnoses that are not effectively communicated to the patient — were already one of the most sizable care quality challenges hospitals were facing prior to the pandemic. 

"It's a little bit hard to play out what that crystal ball is going to show, but it is in particular an area that I think would be very, very important to watch," she said.

Another area to monitor closely is delayed care and its potential consequences for patient outcomes, according to Ms. McGaffigan. Many Americans haven't kept up with preventive care or have had delays in accessing care. Such delays could not only worsen patients' health conditions, but also disengage them and prevent them from seeking care when it is available. 

Reinvigorating safety work: Where to start

Ms. McGaffigan suggests healthcare organizations looking to reinvigorate their safety work go back to the basics. Leaders should ensure they have a clear understanding of what their organization's baseline safety metrics are and how their safety reports have been trending over the past year and a half.

"Look at the foundational aspects of what makes care safe and high-quality," she said. "Those are very much linked to a lot of the systems, behaviors and practices that need to be prioritized by leaders and effectively translated within and across organizations and care teams."

She recommended healthcare organizations take a total systems approach to their safety work, by focusing on the following four, interconnected pillars:

  • Culture, leadership and governance
  • Patient and family engagement
  • Learning systems
  • Workforce safety

For example, evidence shows workforce safety is an integral part of patient safety, but it's not an area that's systematically measured or evaluated, according to Ms. McGaffigan. Leaders should be aware of this connection and consider whether their patient safety reporting systems address workforce safety concerns or, instead, add on extra work and stress for their staff. 

Safety performance can slip when team members get busy or burdensome work is added to their plates, according to Ms. McGaffigan. She said leaders should be able to identify and prioritize the essential value-added work that must go on at an organization to ensure patients and families will have safe passage through the healthcare system and that care teams are able to operate in the safest and healthiest work environments.

In short, leaders should ask themselves: "What is the burdensome work people are being asked to absorb and what are the essential elements that are associated with safety that you want and need people to be able to stay on top of," she said.

To improve both staffing shortages and quality of care, health systems must bring nurses higher up in leadership and into C-suite roles, Ms. Binder said. Giving nurses more authority in hospital decisions will make everything safer. Seattle-based Virginia Mason Hospital recently redesigned its operations around nurse priorities and subsequently saw its quality and safety scores go up, according to Ms. Binder. 

"If it's a good place for a nurse to go, it's a good place for a patient to go," Ms. Binder said, noting that the national nursing shortage isn't just a numbers game; it requires a large culture shift.

Hospitals need to double down on quality improvement efforts, Ms. Binder said. "Many have done the opposite, for good reason, because they are so focused on COVID-19. Because of that, quality improvement efforts have been reduced."

Ms. Binder urged hospitals not to cut quality improvement staff, noting that this is an extraordinarily dangerous time for patients, and hospitals need all the help they can get monitoring safety. Hospitals shouldn't start to believe the notion that somehow withdrawing focus on quality will save money or effort.  

"It's important that the American public knows that we are fighting for healthcare quality and safety — and we have to fight for it, we all do," Ms. Binder concluded. "We all have to be vigilant."

Conclusion

The true consequences of healthcare's labor shortage on patient safety and care quality will become clear once more national data is available. If the CDC's report on rising HAI rates is any harbinger of what's to come, it's clear that health systems must place renewed focus and energy on safety work — even during something as unprecedented as a pandemic. 

The irony isn't lost on Ms. Binder: Amid a crisis driven by infectious disease, U.S. hospitals are seeing higher rates of other infections.  

"A patient dies once," she concluded. "They can die from COVID-19 or C. diff. It isn't enough to prevent one."

 

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