Hospitals struggle to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels

In addition to burnout, many have taken advantage of higher-paying opportunities through travel nursing positions, forcing hospitals to reevaluate recruitment and retention efforts.

SAN ANTONIO — Texas Vista Medical Center (TVMC) is operating at or near capacity most days. Not because hospital beds aren’t available, but because there aren’t always enough health workers to staff them.

Staffing shortages have been a problem long before the pandemic, but the past two years have forced hospitals to reassess how they recruit and retain workers.

At the height of the pandemic, many nurses and other healthcare personnel took the opportunity to earn higher pay through contract and traveling positions. TVMC chairman Jon Turton said they couldn’t be mad at the staff for leaving for more money. In one example, a nurse would earn $45 per hour, but an agency might offer $120 per hour for 13 weeks.

When the demand for travel nurses skyrocketed, Turton said it created wage inflation. Their hospital is now operating at 20% over staff budget, but still cannot compete with traveling nurses’ rates.

According to the Texas Hospital Association, staffing accounts for approximately 60% of a hospital’s total expenses.

At one point during the pandemic, the hospital had a large number of contract nurses. Today, Turton said there are around 20 contract nurses, most of them on their own staff. Still, the hospital has more vacancies than they would like.

“This hospital has about 815 employees today and about 100 vacancies,” Turton said. “So today I could easily choose to hire 40, 50 more nurses right now to get this hospital properly staffed for the patient care that we would like to provide.”

Health professionals also point to stress and burnout contributing to chronic shortages nationwide. Vanessa Olivarez, director of the medical-surgical team at Texas Vista, saw the physical and mental exhaustion firsthand.

“Certainly the most important thing I hear from nurses is, ‘I’m tired,'” she said. “Our nurses were going through stressful times because we are dealing with six patients for one nurse, sometimes seven patients for one nurse.”

Since the pandemic has become more manageable, Texas Vista leaders have focused on increasing wages, workplace culture and work-life balance. Turton said they

“We’re trying to make that culture happen, that positive culture, and it happens, and it changes, it takes time,” Olivarez said.

Texas Vista also works closely with local colleges and universities to help train and recruit future healthcare workers.

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