Combatting Nursing Shortages: Innovative Staffing Solutions for Healthcare  

Highlights

  • The U.S. healthcare sector is grappling with a growing nursing shortage, intensified by an aging patient population and high levels of nurse burnout.
  • Internal staffing issues such as FTE erosion, misaligned scheduling and consistent understaffing can worsen nursing shortages.
  • Strategic solutions, like predictive analytics, can align scheduling more effectively to boost staff morale and improve patient care quality. 

Healthcare organizations nationwide are experiencing intense pressure due to an escalating nursing shortage. Reports indicate the situation is likely to worsen, with an average of 193,100 openings for registered nurses projected each year, based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Initiating programs to recruit and retain competent nurses is crucial. Equally essential is the need to closely scrutinize current staffing practices and formulate strategies that fully optimize existing staff resources.  

Identifying the source of current staffing challenges 

While many hospitals may have high nurse vacancy rates, an organization’s staffing practices can make those vacancies feel more pronounced. However, with the right tools and tactics, some key staffing issues can be addressed and resolved.  

Let’s consider three practices that could be contributing to a hospital’s staffing conundrum:  

Identifying the source of current staffing challenges

While many hospitals may have high nurse vacancy rates, an organization’s staffing practices can make those vacancies feel more pronounced. However, with the right tools and tactics, some key staffing issues can be addressed and resolved.  

Let’s consider three practices that could be contributing to a hospital’s staffing conundrum:  

FTE erosion

FTE erosion is an under-discussed phenomenon that, when left unmonitored, can compound staffing shortages. FTE erosion describes the hours lost when core staff regularly give away their scheduled shifts and do not meet their full-time equivalent (FTE) commitment. This creates a self-inflicted shortage within the unit that compels other staff members to take extra shifts and overtime or forces managers to rely on supplemental staff to make up for staffing gaps.  

Misalignment of scheduling with volume patterns 

Determining the appropriate size of your core staff starts with analyzing historical census data and staffing requirements. Look at daily, weekly and seasonal patient volume patterns on each unit. Identify minimum and maximum staffing needs based on historical highs and lows.

Factor in typical core staff availability — removing time spent on PTO, sick leave and training. Avoid overstaffing for peak periods, which leads to inefficiency during slower periods. Instead, build a core level that provides solid coverage for typical volumes, then leverage contingent labor for peak periods.

Regularly revisit core staffing needs as volumes, length of stay and patient acuity evolve. Adjust to meet demand while minimizing overstaffing and work with leadership and staff to gain buy-in on changes.

Turnover triggered by consistent understaffing

Persistently high turnover rates amid a nursing shortage can be challenging for healthcare organizations. When units are perpetually understaffed, core staff are often overworked, leading to burnout and job dissatisfaction. This exhausting cycle can cause staff to seek alternatives outside of the organization.  

Optimize existing workforce capacity

Healthcare organizations can employ strategic measures to thoughtfully leverage their existing workforce to alleviate staffing issues. Thorough data analysis is critical in identifying FTE erosion and increasing workforce capacity.  

Predictive analytics can also forecast staffing requirements more precisely. While most systems utilize historical patient census averages, AI-driven staffing solutions overlay scheduling data and coverage rules with an organization’s EMR, time and attendance and scheduling systems. Unit managers receive alerts for potential understaffing or overstaffing to align staff and schedules more effectively. 

Hospitals and health systems have long struggled with workforce shortages.  Effective workforce management, powered by deep analytics and AI, can lessen the effects of being understaffed, leading to improved clinical coverage, job satisfaction and, most importantly, patient care.   

Written by Jackie Larson

Jackie Larson is a healthcare industry veteran and recognized thought leader. With more than 20 years in the industry, she has provided guidance and support to hundreds of hospitals on a range of issues including workforce optimization, productivity, labor pool and incentives, system integration, resource management and business analytics.

Jackie is a sought-after writer and speaker on healthcare staffing and workforce optimization topics. She has been featured at national conferences and is a regular contributor to Becker’s Hospital Review and the Huffington Post, among other publications.