A labor market full of churn: 4 healthcare takeaways 

Several factors are shaping what one economist calls a "weird summer" for the U.S. labor market. How's it playing out in healthcare? 

1. Why "weird"? That's how Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, described the labor market to Bloomberg, noting a high degree of churn. Factors contributing to the atypicality industrywide: lingering concerns about COVID-19 and the delta variant; child care challenges; temporarily strengthened unemployment benefits; and extreme weather and interrupted travel. 

2. What's happening in healthcare, specifically? A few things are likely drivers of labor shortages in healthcare. COVID-19 left many professionals exhausted and either making or seeking an exit from the profession: Nearly 30 percent of physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers have considered leaving healthcare altogether because of COVID-19-related burnout, a survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found. Early retirements can hit healthcare especially hard, given that nearly a third of physicians are over 60 years old. And still, other workers with financial cushions and in-demand skills are resigning out of "professional fearlessness" prompted by a year spent with much of life on hold. All of these factors sit atop a force that is well-studied, documented and expected: Americans are aging and living longer lives. By 2030, one in five Americans is projected to be 65 or over, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Finally, COVID-19 leaves thousands of survivors with health effects that place additional demand on the healthcare system. Nearly one quarter of people who had COVID-19 still have at least one condition.

3. Wasn't there a shortage pre-pandemic? Yes. Nurses were in demand for decades, long before COVID-19, that only grew stronger as baby boomers aged. In 2009, a team of Vanderbilt University nursing researchers posited that America's nursing deficit was going to be "more than twice as large as any nurse shortage experienced since the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s." In 2019, the Association of American Medical Colleges forecasted a shortage of up to nearly 122,000 physicians by 2032. (The AAMC released new figures in 2021, revising the forecasted range of deficit to 37,800 and 124,000 by 2034.)

4. How are shortages showing up in hospitals? Hospitals are dealing with labor and talent deficits of varying degrees depending on the market. Emergency rooms are feeling the strain of staffing shortages combined with higher-acuity patients who are the result of delayed or deferred care throughout the pandemic. Vying for nurses and other positions, some hospitals and health systems are expanding sign-on bonuses: Houston Methodist is offering nurses $15,000, and Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta is offering nurses $30,000. In one extreme situation, a state-operated psychiatric hospital in Oregon was so understaffed it requested and obtained 30 registered nurses from the National Guard. Inadequate staffing and other concerns are prompting union activity, including in Chicago, Minneapolis and outside Los Angeles.  

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