Despite the growing use of technology, healthcare is still primarily a people-driven business. From the doctors and nurses who provide care to the administrators and operators who help these complex organizations function – the growing demand for care outpaces the supply of labor and this is putting pressure on healthcare systems globally. COVID-19 exacerbated this challenge by putting strained workforces under the threat of direct exposure to the virus, extending work hours, deferring vacations and demanding rapid change in ways of working.

The results of the 2021 Healthcare CEO Future Pulse reveal that health leaders are addressing workforce challenges with approaches in the immediate term focused on optimizing their teams, while keeping their eyes on the horizon of talent supply shortages. Roughly two-thirds (67 percent) acknowledge that their organizations need to focus more of their attention on talent and resources. Fewer than half (43 percent) of executives believe they’re facing a talent shortage. Instead, the most concerning workforce issues keeping healthcare CEOs up at night are the ability to meet demand, the impact of new operating models upon staff, supporting workforce wellness, and recruiting new talent.

Workforce concerns illustration

Considered together, these data suggest an instinct to “do more” with available talent—through training, supporting them with technology or providing greater support/incentives, rather than recruiting new resources. For Sarah Downey, president and CEO of Michael Garron Hospital in Canada this is not a solution. “We have an exhausted workforce, many of whom were already at the brink of retirement before COVID,” she says. For the past year, her team has worked to fill 100 nursing vacancies, and this issue has become a perennial problem for her hospital.

The potential impact is profound. There is no healthcare without healthcare workers: loss of staff due to attrition, burnout or retirement can have serious implications—in terms of costs to recruit new talent and capacity to deliver on demand. Following COVID, the threat is very real as people re-examine their career choices. However, the data suggests that health leaders, while concerned about workforce wellness, are looking beyond the pandemic.

In terms of mitigating burnout, more than two-thirds of CEOs (69 percent) have programs in place to listen to their staffers’ needs and learn where they need support – but clearly more can be done. More than two-thirds (67 percent) said they’re embracing partnerships in which external providers can take on more duties, alleviating overwork and allowing providers to focus on their core duties, where they can add the most value according to their expertise. This may be a necessary measure to add capacity to the workforce, but also may require re-thinking and expanding what the workforce looks like.

Sarah Downey

“It’s a system that is very hard to transform and change. You don’t have many levers and we cannot produce personnel quickly. We’ve got a huge amount of work going into inclusion and diversity, which mirrors what’s going on in the system. But what really worries me over the next couple of years is how to rebuild our workforce to be able to maintain access to healthcare for those who will need it.”

Sarah Downey
President and CEO Michael Garron Hospital

The point, of course, isn’t to deprioritize patient satisfaction. It’s important to recognize that the two are inextricably linked – organizations can’t deliver on patient outcomes without the people who get that done – perhaps the best way to reconcile the two is by creating a culture like the one at Mayo Clinic. “Everyone in the organization works towards helping patients get better. It’s unbelievably personal – if you reached out to me for help, I will find an answer for you,” says Dr. Decker, President, Mayo Clinic International. He explains the depth of that personal relationship further, noting: “We ask our staff to imagine the patient is your family. Imagine you’re the patient. Then deliver to that standard of care.”

Key takeaways

  • Health leaders are currently focused on getting ‘more blood from the stone’ from their existing workforces, but the reality is that leaders will need to focus on treating existing staff better while building a ‘pipeline’ of future labor.

  • Workforce concerns are a long-term play given that supply is limited, and their recruitment, training and deployment spans many years.

  • To deliver customer-centric experiences, workforces are the interface and embodiment of that ethos; sacrificing workforce in the name of efficiency can do more harm than good.

How to take action

Workforce should be a core pillar of health leaders’ strategies and requires both a current and long-term perspective – from a culture, capacity, and technology perspective. Patient-centricity is driven by workforce culture, which needs to be led from the top. Meanwhile, capacity can be addressed using a ‘workforce shaping’ approach - assessing current capacity, future demand and potential labor-mix needs. Further, workforce and digital strategies should be intertwined – factoring in how one impacts the other, and how workforces will need to be augmented with new roles and existing staff trained in new ways of working with technology.