Throwing money at the health care labor shortage is ‘too little, too late’ say experts

October 19, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

It’s been nearly two years since the first COVID-19 case was identified. Since then, the American health care system has been stretched to its limits and tested in previously unimaginable ways, all under an ever-worsening labor shortage. 

At Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit last week, Alice Lin Fabiano, global director of social innovation and investment at Johnson & Johnson, said that nurses were the ones who stepped forward “when everyone else was asked to step back.” Health care workers have been stretched even thinner than they normally are, and their benefits haven’t fundamentally increased to reflect that, she said. “If we take care of our health care workers, they will take care of anyone else,” said Fabiano.

But the lack of care is further impacting the strained hospital system. “We’ve had a steady decline in hiring of nurses since we started the pandemic,” said Fabiano. “The supply of nurses, or of people that want to be in that profession, is declining.” But at the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the U.S. will soon require a 35% increase in home health workers, a group that makes about $27,000 a year on average without health care and retirement benefits. “How are we going to solve the labor issues for health care workers?” asked Fabiano. Advances in telemedicine and direct-to-consumer health products have been great boons to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, but, she added, “Who is the consumer going to interface if there’s no health care workers?”

COVID-19, a rapidly aging population, and larger demographic shifts have led to a “perfect storm” and a “crisis,” said Emily Melton, managing partner at Threshold. Fixing the problem starts at a local level, and it starts early, she said. Hospital systems need to start working toward attracting more people into nursing school programs. 

According to a recent poll by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, three in 10 health care workers have thought about leaving their professions, and six in 10 say the pandemic has burned them out.

It’s also important to address growing problems with home caregiving, unpaid and resource-heavy informal labor that falls on the shoulders of women 80% of the time. “Those are an absolute drain as well, and we should compensate for them and we should acknowledge that it does unfairly burden women,” said Melton. Solutions should be monetary, but Americans can make the jobs more rewarding by simply acknowledging the hard work of medical professionals and saying thank you. 

Large health care systems are actually buying buildings next to their hospitals and offering free housing to nurses in an effort to attract more hires. “I think that the problem is it’s too little, too late in a system that is really exploitative,” said Melton. “They’re trying to throw money at their problem or to create rent-a-nurse and rent-a-doctor health systems, which can make money for a short period of time.” The only way to solve the labor shortage in the long term, she said, is to change the way that health care systems treat their nurses and new entrants. 

“Giving them a voice at the table and then also fairly compensating them. That’s going to be the differentiator that drives better outcomes and creates successful companies,” said Melton. “That’s going to be a big shift from the way the system is built today.” So many new health companies focus on arbitrage, she said, but instead she thinks the companies that cost more in the short term will end up cheaper and more successful in the long term.

Two years ago health care technologists at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit predicted that an explosion in telemedicine was around the corner. At the time, they were unaware that a deadly pandemic would turn their vision for the future into reality at warp speed. 

Now health care companies are hoping they can use that change to relieve some of the burden of understaffed and overworked medical professionals. “It’s about creating capacity,” said Deborah DiSanzo, president of Best Buy Health. “All of these different models are exploring how we can allow nurses and doctors to prioritize and do different work.” If you put more testing in the hands of consumers, or pharmacists, that frees up time for nurses and doctors, she said: “How can we make things more efficient?”

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