Staffing Shortage Challenges Hospitals Across Michigan

The past 18 months of the pandemic forced healthcare to be creative and responsive to the needs of the moment, and in that time the MVC Coordinating Center heard from members about how they are working to maintain a high quality of care. The challenges and pivots shared by members vary significantly because facilities were impacted at different points in time and with varying levels of severity. However, one challenge echoes loudly and consistently for hospitals big, small, urban, or rural: the staffing shortage. This problem isn’t specific to Michigan. Across the United States, hospitals don’t have enough staff to keep up with their normal standards of care, with many having to turn away patients and ration care.

Health professionals are the lifeblood of healthcare delivery, so attaining or maintaining a high quality of care is only achievable with appropriate staffing levels. The Institute of Medicine framework defines quality care with six aims: that it be safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient, and equitable. Some of those aims have been directly exacerbated by the pandemic—such as health equity or safety—while many have been at least indirectly impeded by the strains on frontline workers.

An article published by the Detroit Free Press this month titled, “Michigan hospital staffing shortage nears crisis point as COVID-19 patients rise,” paints the current situation as dire. The article quotes Brian Peters, the CEO of the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, as saying, “I have never heard a consistent theme from across our entire membership like I have on this staffing issue." He adds that the shortage affects multiple sectors of the workforce, such as nurses, physicians, housekeeping, technicians, and food service personnel. These new staffing issues occur within an industry that was already concerned about an expected shortage of primary care physicians (PCPs). The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) published data that predicts an estimated shortage of between 21,400 and 55,200 PCPs by 2033 (see Figure 1), in part due to a population that continues to grow and age.

Figure 1.

Some hospitals suggest burnout as the main culprit for the current staffing shortages. A literature review on the effect of burnout on quality of care defines burnout as a state of fatigue and frustration manifested as physical and emotional exhaustion characterized by dissatisfaction and stress, with symptoms such as, “physical fatigue, cognitive weariness, and emotional exhaustion.” Anyone in that condition cannot perform at their best. So as quality teams try to find treatment efficiencies for conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or congestive heart failure (CHF), the elephant in the room is that they may not be able to provide treatment if nurses, technicians, and physicians aren’t adequately staffed.

The industry is expecting the shortages to increase slightly in the coming weeks as vaccination mandate deadlines approach. Currently, those health systems requiring COVID-19 vaccination include Henry Ford, Michigan Medicine, Beaumont Health, Trinity Health, Spectrum Health, OSF HealthCare, Ascension Health, and Bronson Healthcare, along with Veterans Health Administration facilities.

A variety of strategies are being proposed to lessen the burden felt by the shortage. Since it takes time to recruit new people into medical fields, these approaches generally fall into one of two categories: 1) retain current staff, and 2) deploy current staff as efficiently as possible.

The approaches that hospitals have mentioned for retaining staff are short-term in nature, ranging from approval of overtime and bonuses to instituting new staff well-being programs and sharing mental health resources. Efficient staffing is a more complex approach, but long-term with the potential to reduce the expected burden from future PCP shortages. The Harvard Business Review published an article that outlines strategies for efficient staffing in response to the PCP shortage, which could be repurposed and applied to other healthcare workforces. Among their suggestions, they highlight Advisory Board research that proposes the threefold answer is, “better use of PCPs targeted at specific populations, greater use of non-physician labor where appropriate, and much broader deployment of technology to increase access to primary care.” These suggestions align with several other priorities often voiced to the MVC Coordinating Center by members, including equitable access to care, expanded telehealth offerings, and improved care coordination utilizing nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

The work ahead will be challenging, as it often is in healthcare. Hospitals will continue to shoulder a shared burden in the months ahead. MVC encourages all members and partners to share resources that may help a peer institution improve the quality of care for Michigan residents. Please continue to bring these ideas to future workgroups and networking events, and contact the MVC Coordinating Center at michiganvaluecollaborative@gmail.com.


Long COVID-19, Just One Aftereffect of COVID-19

With continued COVID-19 surges occurring worldwide despite the availability of a number of variations of vaccines, some patients continue to experience what is now being dubbed as “Long COVID-19” or “Post COVID-19 Syndrome”. Symptoms that are commonly experienced include a persistent cough, dyspnea, chest and/or joint pain, neuralgia, and headaches. These symptoms can last up to 12 weeks and in some cases, even longer. The more people that develop long COVID-19, the greater the strain on the healthcare system and need for appropriate diagnosis and treatment options.

A recent paper by A.V. Raveendran from January 2021 proposed diagnostic criteria to help confirm a diagnosis of long COVID-19. Depending on clinical symptomology, duration criteria and the presence or absence of a positive swab or antibodies, a long COVID-19 diagnosis can be categorized as confirmed, probable, possible or doubtful. Having an appropriate diagnosis will allow the practitioner to prescribe the relevant treatment plan.

In the United Kingdom, where the number of people exhibiting long COVID-19 continues to increase, a guideline has been developed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to provide recommendations to help identify, assess, and manage the effects. As more evidence is collected, the plan is to update the document on a continuous basis to maintain its validity. The guideline takes into consideration clinical symptomology, duration criteria, and the presence or absence of a positive SARS-Cov-2 test. It also provides guidelines for suggested referrals, and a plan of care with follow-up and monitoring.

While the guideline manual has many useful suggestions, there are a number of gaps where further detailed information will be needed.  As new information is discovered, the goal is to include comprehensive reviews of symptomology, and pathology of the disease process and a better understanding of the variation in impact. Simultaneously, there needs to be an increase in rehabilitation and community resources to allow for individualized evidenced based care for those suffering from the debilitating effects of long COVID-19.

The Michigan Value Collaborative continues to assess data related to COVID-19 and will be sharing a dedicated COVID-19 push report with members in the coming months. If you would like access to the MVC registry, please request it here or via email michiganvaluecollaborative@gmail.com


Telehealth Use: Maintaining Access to Surgical Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a unique situation which led to the high use of telehealth in caring for the medical patient population. However, it was unknown whether these same patterns would transfer to surgical care. The Michigan Value Collaborative (MVC) registry allows health systems to leverage administrative claims data from a variety of sources and better understand trends in telehealth use. Using MVC BCBSM data, the Telehealth Research Incubator at Michigan Medicine found in their study that telehealth was a viable way for patients to access surgical care.

Historically, surgery is the medical field least likely to use telehealth. However, with in-person care constraints resulting from the pandemic and updated policies making it feasible for telehealth visits to be eligible for reimbursement, a large uptake in telehealth among surgeons was witnessed.

Approximately 60% of active surgeons used telehealth in some capacity during the pandemic. Specifically, our study examined telehealth use for new patient visits. We were curious if surgeons were able to use telehealth to evaluate new patients, and the results proved that this was a viable and beneficial option to provide care. Significantly,  27% of all active surgeons used telehealth for new patient visits.

As shown in Figure 1, at peak use, we found over a third of visits for new patients were performed using telehealth. This is in contrast to the fewer than 10 telehealth new patient visits in 2019.


Figure 1

In addition, the study indicated that telehealth was successfully used for many surgical visits across multiple different surgical specialties, with urology and neurosurgery being the highest utilizers. This is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

There were two distinct periods of telehealth use: an early pandemic (fast uptake) and late pandemic period (slow decline). The slow decline that occurred during the late pandemic period indicated the reopening of clinics in June, and an increase in more in-person visits being used again. These are shown as Period 2 and Period 3 in the preceding figures.

Of note, our study looks at new patient visits because of the way that claims data is collected. Anecdotal evidence suggests that surgeons used telehealth even more for their established patients and for follow-up visits post-surgery. Although telehealth might save patients time and money in traveling to clinic, needing child care, and missing work, this type of consultation would be most appropriate for patients without post-operative complications.

It was noticed that telehealth provided access to surgical care for a significant proportion of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Any sustained use of telehealth will require ongoing updated policies and infrastructure to ensure patients have continued access to this option for their care.

Please reach out to the Michigan Value Collaborative at michiganvaluecollaborative@gmail.com for further information.