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The Impact of Hospital Staff Shortages in Health Care

November 11, 2022

In recent years, healthcare systems around the world have been grappling with a critical issue: hospital staff shortages. These shortages have far-reaching consequences that not only strain healthcare providers but also significantly affect the quality of patient care. 

COVID-19 has largely impacted hospital staff shortages. According to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, approximately 15 percent of hospital workers reported being unable to work at some point in the spring of 2020 due to reasons related to the pandemic.

Naturally, there was a corresponding impact of staff shortages in health care on patients regarding the level of care provided, patient wait times to see a clinician, and the availability of hospital resources. Moreover, many nurses reported feeling burnout, exhaustion, and trauma during this time period. 

This is one example of how the pandemic worsened existing staffing problems and affected patient care, said Dr. Kenneth Campbell, assistant professor and interim program director for the Online Master of Health Administration Program at Tulane University. The crisis also offers opportunities for new strategies to keep and attract staff, Dr. Campbell said. “Post COVID-19, we have to take a different approach to how we retain employees. The relationship between healthcare leadership and employees has changed forever.” 

Healthcare Staff Shortages During the Pandemic

The impact of staff shortages in health care during the pandemic was felt throughout the entirety of the system, resulting in:

Increased wait times: With fewer clinicians to handle the workload, patients experienced longer wait times for treatments and appointments. This delay led to the worsening of conditions, especially for those requiring urgent care.

Reduced time with patients: Nurses and doctors were forced to manage more patients than normal, reducing the amount of time they could spend with each individual. This affected the thoroughness of care provided and led to oversights in treatment plans.

Increased risk of errors: Overworked and exhausted staff were more prone to making mistakes, potentially leading to decreased quality of care and errors.

Patient dissatisfaction: The inability to provide timely, high-quality care led to increased patient frustration and dissatisfaction, thus reducing the overall experience and trust in the health care system.

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Current Healthcare Staff Shortages

Even after the most acute effects of COVID-19, a shortage of healthcare staff continues to affect the system at large. According to an American Hospital Association fact sheet, there could be a projected shortage of 3.2 million healthcare workers by 2026. 

Several factors are contributing to this issue, including:

High burnout rates: The demanding nature of healthcare jobs has led to high levels of stress and burnout.

Aging workforce: A significant portion of the healthcare workforce is reaching retirement age, and there aren’t enough new recruits to bridge the gap.

Inadequate staffing ratios: Budget constraints and financial pressures on healthcare facilities often result in not hiring enough staff to replace retirees or to keep up with increasing patient demands.

Geographic disparities: Rural and underserved urban areas often face greater difficulties in attracting and retaining skilled healthcare professionals.

Strategies to Relieve Hospital Staff Shortages

In the short term, hospitals can address staffing gaps by hiring temporary nurses, known as travel nurses, to take temporary positions in short-staffed facilities. However, in the long term, the solutions to staff shortages are much more nuanced. They include providing more employee support and making hiring easier, Dr. Campbell said. He suggested a wide array of strategies. 

Emotional Support

“We have to become healing organizations for our employees,” Dr. Campbell suggested. He recommended setting up calming stations: rooms where staffers can take mental breaks for up to 30 minutes. He also advised making mental health counselors accessible to hospital workers — not just when they’re at work, but 24/7. 

Financial Support

Dr. Campbell recommended relieving financial stresses by offering onsite childcare and assistance to help pay back student loans. Such aid, he said, can give hospitals an edge in the competition for workers. 

Employee Feedback

Hospitals survey patient satisfaction, Dr. Campbell noted. He also advised setting up electronic platforms where staff can point out problems and recommend solutions. 

Faster Hiring

Technology can help hospitals streamline the hiring process, Dr. Campbell suggested. An applicant should be able to apply and submit paperwork online, be interviewed virtually over Zoom, and be hired on the spot. 

Bringing Back Retired Workers

Reclaiming available talent will be key moving forward. Hospitals facilities can bring back retired workers part-time, Dr. Campbell said, if they offer shorter shifts and options for working from home.

“We have to create pathways specifically for them,” he said. “We cannot just let that expertise sit out there. We need it back in our organizations.” 

Diversity: Another Solution to Hospital Staff Shortages

A different sort of staffing problem is the lack of racial diversity in management, Dr. Campbell said. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, 79 percent of hospital board members are white. “One of the reasons that we have these staffing shortages is because we have failed to diversify our leadership,” he said.

By working to make staff more inclusive, he suggested, hospitals could both relieve shortages and diversify their management pipelines.

Tulane is doing just that, he noted: Its Master of Health Administration (MHA) program recruits students of varied backgrounds to become future leaders in health care, some of them from other countries. It is convenient for offsite students because it is online and offers flexible hours for taking classes.

If we “really begin to educate this generation of students, we really can make a difference,” he said. “It’s one way to open the door to a more multiracial and multicultural diverse society who want to be in health care.” 

Explore a Career in Health Administration

Relieving the chronic problem of hospital staffing shortages will require bold leaders. A degree program, such as the Tulane University Online Master of Health Administration, is designed to equip students with the essential skills and competencies to address such issues.

Graduates are qualified to enter the healthcare workforce, where they can make a meaningful impact in numerous health administration roles. Learn more about how the Tulane MHA program can lead to a rewarding career, helping solve some of the most important problems of our healthcare systems.

Advance Your Public Health Career with an MHA Program

Pursue Your Degree Online From Tulane University
Find Out More

Recommended Readings:

Patient-Centered Care: Definition and Examples

An Organizational Chart in Health Care Explained

What Is Quality Improvement in Healthcare?


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Nursing Shortage Fact Sheet

American Hospital Association, Fact Sheet: Strengthening the Health Care Workforce

Becker’s Hospital Review, “Well-Intentioned Healthcare Boards Fall Short on Diversity Efforts”

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Hospital and Outpatient Clinician Workforce: Challenges and Policy Responses”

Pandemic Oversight, Key Insights: Health Care Staffing Shortages