When Tom Jones, program director at the BeWell Home Services, was struggling to find enough employees, the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce offered him a booth at a career fair and sent hundreds of flyers to a database of caregivers.
Jones was at the fair for seven hours; one person stopped by.
He isn’t the only one facing this problem. Across the country, hospitals and care facilities are struggling to find enough doctors and nurses to meet growing demand.
“The workforce shortage … is mostly focused on front-line clinicians like nurses and physicians,” said Schipp Ames, executive director of communications and marketing for the S.C. Hospital Association. “So it’s really these front-line, bedside clinicians where you’re seeing projected workforce shortages.”
MUSC Health CEO Dr. Patrick Cawley said that every region has different needs and that South Carolina faces a nurse shortage.
Cawley and Ames said aging baby boomers, a growing Charleston population and a lack of students being trained are among the factors contributing to the shortage.
“There’s just not as many medical students that are interested in primary care,” he said.
Ames also said not enough people are interested in becoming medical faculty to teach medical students and train the next generation, creating a dwindling cycle of caregivers.
“You can make a much better living in a clinical setting than you can as faculty,” he said. “So there’s not as much available medical faculty to keep up with the amount of physicians and nurses we need.”
Cawley said the number of patients also is rising quickly because baby boomers are aging and the population of Charleston is increasing.
“People (are) living longer and requiring more care, and now we offer more complex care,” Ames said. “And then, of course, you also have that folks have more access to health insurance, so there’s a larger population.”
Ames said there are also many physicans and nurses on the verge of retirement or those who put off retirement during the Great Recession and are ready to leave the field now.
“You’re going to see a large number of clinicians retiring over the next several years,” he said. “A huge portion of the physician and nurse population is age 55 to 75.”
Rita Pridemore, president and CEO of the home health care service Vistelan Healthcare LLC, said hiring is difficult because caregiving facilities and hospitals are competing for the same people.
Barbara Franklin, owner and founder of the long-term care insurance agency Franklin and Associates, said long-term caregivers aren’t paid well because people aren’t valuing their role.
There’s been some talk about raising wages, Franklin said, but long-term care facilities have been resistant to it because their margins are so thin.
“Agencies’ bill rates really aren’t increasing either, because people can’t afford to pay it,” Pridemore said.
The shortage of health care workers is just one of multiple stresses causing doctors and nurses to leave the profession, Cawley said. Other factors, he said, include the recent introduction of electronic medical records and the regulations that are placed on the health care industry.
Cawley said MUSC Health keeps an eye on employees to try to help with their stress.
“If you don’t attack it and work at it, people will leave,” he said.
Ames said one problem with retention and recruitment is the increasing number of workplace options for health care professionals.
“There are new options for health care providers and clinicians to work in now,” Ames said. “There are lots more places where a nurse can work — outpatient settings, insurance companies are now having chief medical officers and nursing officers, health IT companies. You’re seeing large employers like Boeing … and Volvo have on-site health care access.”
Cawley said MUSC doesn’t currently have a problem with retention, “but we’re not taking it for granted.”
Jones said retention is a big issue for BeWell because nurses and long-term caregivers have increasingly more options for work.
“You’ve got mom-and-pop home care companies that are popping up and a lot of times they’re working out of their homes … so they have virtually no overhead,” he said, which means they can afford to pay employees more money.
Ames said despite the workforce shortage, South Carolina hospitals have made strides in improving patient care.
“We’ve actually seen quality improve,” he said. “A lot of that is due to the change in how health care is reimbursed with it moving to a value-based system. Providers are now going to be reimbursed based on the quality of care they provide rather than the quantity.”
Jones said he’s trying to get lawmakers involved so they understand what’s at stake. He’s talked with several members of the House of Representatives and met with Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant on the issue to try to find solutions.
“Until a lawmaker feels the pain, so to speak … it’s kind of not on their radar,” he said.
Emphasis also needs to be put on the ways caregivers can progress so that they don’t see their job as a dead end, Jones said.
Ames said the state Legislature is currently working to help create a stronger pipeline for students to enter health care; and hospitals are working closely with colleges to support nursing programs and talk about opening more medical schools.
“Evidence shows that if you study in South Carolina and if you do your clinical in South Carolina, you’re more likely to stay in South Carolina,” Ames said.
Jones said recruitment needs to start at the grade-school level to promote the health care industry and get students interested at an early age.
Franklin said just not enough people are gravitating to health care jobs.
“The crisis is already there, and it just seems like it’s going to accelerate,” she said.
Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.
Health care industry warns of labor crisis > Charleston Business Journal