HELENA — Saint Peter’s Health and Shodair Children’s Hospital are facing staffing shortages amid a surge in COVID-19 omicron cases that is impacting the level of care the hospitals are able to provide.
One of the reasons that both hospitals are seeing this shortage? According to the organizations, healthcare workers are burnt out.
“I think they're really frustrated. I think they're burnt out, they're stressed. They're waiting for those life preservers and becoming impatient. So that has been difficult,” said Shodair CEO Craig Aasved. “Then you've got one side where you can't attract the people to take care of the kids and then you've got other support staff that are looking at, you know, how is this going to affect me? So it's created it there has been tensions in the workplace, because of the dilemma we're in right now."
“We're hearing from our staff, that they're tired, that it's not fun anymore, that they, they feel devalued by the community, and that it's hard to get up and keep going in this particular job,” said St. Peter’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Shelly Harkin.
In a press release, Saint Peter’s stated that prior to the pandemic the hospital’s employment turnover was 4% percent, but as of right now the hospital is seeing that sit around 15%.
According to St. Peter’s Chief Communications Officer Andrea Groom, the hospital employs approximately 1700 people but has over 330 open positions available for applicants. Groom did note that the hospital typically had approximately 200 open positions on any given day prior to the pandemic, but with the extra the hospital is seeing it’s causing issues for the staff and their patients.
“That extra 100+ positions that are open currently, that's where we begin to see from shift to shift, real consequences because it is down to that one person. That, if they cannot come in and work their shift, we may have to consider different types of alternatives to care for the patients that are in the hospital at that time,” said Groom.
At Shodair, the numbers may not seem as bad with 328 people on staff and only 20 open positions, but per Aasved that number isn’t telling the full story as the hospital and its clinics are also seeing issues with staff having to isolate due to COVID-19 infections.
“I think there's probably been times, I'm totally guessing here, probably, if you were to take 200 [staff] that would be available,” said Aasved. “And that's 200, not just for Shodair proper, that that's enclosed our outpatient clinics as well.”
As a result of the staffing shortages, patients of both hospitals are also going to see impacts. At Shodair, Aasved said there are over 70 beds at the hospital in Helena, but due to the impacts of the staffing shortage, they’ve struggled to admit more than half of that at times.
“We have been forced to close units within this hospital. So on a typical day, you know, we would generally have 74 kids in this building. And there have been times where we've been down to 20 kids. So it's, it's had a huge impact and it's all tied to staffing levels,” said Aasved.
At St. Peter’s, Harkins said they’ve had to result to different tactics in terms of treatment, whether it be a patient with COVID or another ailment, simply because they do not have a bed available.
“The wait times in the emergency room, if you go there, and it's decided that you need to be admitted, might be a lot longer. And that's because we're literally waiting for one patient to be discharged from the hospital, l before we admit another one,” said Harkins. “In previous times – we might want to call the normal times, but I'm not sure we'll ever see those times again – we could call other hospitals around the region around the Mountain West and find a bed if our capacity did not meet the need. But because all hospitals are experiencing this… that option is not available.”
In early November 2020, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced a plan to help recruit health care workers by adding incentives for applicants that are coming from outside of Montana. According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the program has seen 77 positions filled at 18 different healthcare facilities across Montana, and a website with more information for applicants is expected to be launched soon. However, the results of the program locally have been mixed.
“It's still a little early to see. We are seeing some out-of-state applicants hit our system. But I think it's still a bit early to tell whether or not that is something we can measure today, we do expect going forward that that will be a tremendous asset and helping us recruit out-of-state talent,” said Groom.
“I really, you know, applaud the governor's efforts, but we have not seen any additional applicants as a result,” said Aasved. “Frankly, there was a period of time where we were receiving no applicants in general.”
Nonetheless, both hospitals are working to recruit and retain more employees, by offering higher wages and added benefits, but also by casting wider nets when it comes to recruiting.
“A lot of effort being put into retention of our existing staff, and looking and thinking out of the box for, you know, other staff,” said Aasved. “For example, we had a contact, you know, in California and we have a nurse coming from the Philippines. You know? It's really just making us look outside of our normal boundaries of, ‘How else can – how else can we recruit additional employees?’”
“There's a number of pretty fundamental things that we're doing, such as we recently doubled the size of our recruitment team, here we went from three to six. We're also implementing new technology and a platform to streamline and improve, and hasten that process of a candidate applying for a job and being able to come in the door and actually start working on day one,” said Groom. “There are certainly efforts to reach out to those who have already retired to see if there's a way that they can come back. And on the other side, we're looking at students and how to more actively work with our local colleges and healthcare programs with that developing workforce to bring them in more quickly.”
Nearly everyone in the healthcare sector is looking for the light at the end of the tunnel in relation to the pandemic, but both know that it’s likely not coming any time soon and are asking for the community’s help in alleviating the burden on healthcare workers.
“Be kind. Remember that the world the whole world is short-staffed. And so please be kind to those who continue to show up for us and for you,” said Harkins.”We've seen an increase in verbal, even physical aggression and abuse of our staff. Everyone is on edge.”