While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist, healthcare staffing shortages are being felt all throughout the United States and beyond. As clinics, hospitals, and care facilities struggle with staffing, it is important to investigate how these shortages impact healthcare quality and patient well-being. More than ever, it is critical that healthcare leaders understand the burdens presented by these shortages and invest in recruitment and retention strategies to best remedy them.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns were being raised regarding nursing shortages throughout the country due to issues like an aging workforce and burnout [i]. Unfortunately, the global pandemic has only exacerbated the problem..
According to International Council of Nurses CEO Howard Catton, “The scale of the world-wide nursing shortage is one of the greatest threats to health globally…Access to healthcare is central to safe, secure, economically successful and equitable societies, but it cannot be achieved unless there are enough nurses to provide the care needed.” [ii]
This same sentiment was echoed by the Emergency Care Research Institute (ECRI) 2022 annual patient safety report, which listed staffing shortages and healthcare workers’ mental health as the top threats to patient safety. [iii] According to the ECRI, an estimated 24% of U.S. hospitals were critically understaffed, with more heading in that direction. [iv]
While the reality of these shortages is clear, their potential to impact the quality of health and healthcare is less so. To gain a better understanding, we have gathered a few studies to show some of the significant ways that healthcare staffing shortages could affect care and patient safety and to help illustrate the severity of the issue.
In 2011, a retrospective observational study published by The New England Journal of Medicine found that “staffing of RNs below target levels was associated with increased mortality, which reinforces the need to match staffing with patients’ needs for nursing care.” [v] A similar study published by BMJ in 2018 concluded that “Lower RN staffing and higher levels of admissions per RN are associated with increased risk of death during an admission to hospital.” [vi] Together, these two studies suggest that the current healthcare shortages being experienced across the world could have deadly consequences.
But why can low staffing levels lead to increased mortality? One of the possible reasons is medical errors.
Relying on understaffed and overworked healthcare workers can create an environment that is more susceptible to costly medical mistakes. According to data from Survey Healthcare Global in 2022, “More than a third (34%) of responding physicians reported an increase in medical errors due to staff shortages.” [vii]
Even before the onset of COVID-19, researchers were making the connection between healthcare workers’ feelings of burnout and the quality of care their patients receive. A study published by the NCBI in 2019 found that there is a relationship between high levels of burnout and worsening patient safety and that “High levels of burnout is related to external factors, such as high workload, long hours, and interpersonal relationship.” [viii] Unfortunately, the ongoing pandemic has likely only worsened these feelings of burnout in the healthcare field.
Finding solutions to the healthcare labor crisis should be a top priority for healthcare leaders everywhere. Research has revealed that these shortages have the potential to severely impact patient well-being and care. If you haven’t already, check out these 3 key healthcare recruitment and retention strategies to improve resiliency. and 161 rural hospitals have closed since January 2005. Each time a rural facility downsizes or closes, there are severe consequences that are felt throughout the local and surrounding communities. Apart from the obvious loss of healthcare services, there is loss of jobs, loss of tax revenue, loss of supporting business and loss professional residents.
Our team at AB Med would love to help you discover innovative solutions to overcome your staffing healthcare challenges.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
- Haddad, L.M. and Toney-Butler, T.J. (2022). Nursing shortage. [online] NCBI. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493175/.
- ICN – International Council of Nurses. (n.d.). ‘The greatest threat to global health is the workforce shortage’ – International Council of Nurses International Nurses Day demands action on investment in nursing, protection and safety of nurses. [online] Available at: https://www.icn.ch/news/greatest-threat-global-health-workforce-shortage-international-council-nurses-international [Accessed 13 Jun. 2022].
- ECRI. (n.d.). ECRI Reports Staffing Shortages and Clinician Mental Health are Top Threats to Patient Safety. [online] Available at: https://www.ecri.org/press/ecri-reports-staffing-shortages-and-clinician-mental-health-are-top-threats [Accessed 13 Jun. 2022].
- ECRI. (n.d.). Top 10 Patient Safety Concerns 2022. [online] Available at: https://www.ecri.org/top-10-patient-safety-concerns-2022 [Accessed 13 Jun. 2022].
- Every respiratory measure matters. (n.d.). [online] doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1001025. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmsa1001025
- Griffiths, P., Maruotti, A., Recio Saucedo, A., Redfern, O.C., Ball, J.E., Briggs, J., Dall’Ora, C., Schmidt, P.E. and Smith, G.B. (2018). Nurse staffing, nursing assistants and hospital mortality: Retrospective longitudinal cohort study. BMJ Quality & Safety, [online] 28(8), p.bmjqs-2018-008043. doi:10.1136/bmjqs-2018-008043.
- Medical Economics. (n.d.). 34% of doctors report increased medical errors due to staffing shortages. [online] Available at: https://www.medicaleconomics.com/view/34-of-doctors-report-increased-medical-errors-due-to-staffing-shortages [Accessed 13 Jun. 2022].
- Garcia, C., Abreu, L., Ramos, J., Castro, C., Smiderle, F., Santos, J. and Bezerra, I. (2019). Influence of Burnout on Patient Safety: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Medicina, 55(9), p.553. doi:10.3390/medicina55090553.
By: Erik McLaughlin MD, MPH and Aikaterini Papadopoulou, B.Arch