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Hospitals continue to see chronic staff shortages in sectors treating COVID-19 patients

Patricia Pittman, professor in health policy at George Washington University, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the shortage in healthcare jobs amid the pandemic.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: All right, let's talk more about those health-care jobs in particular. For that, we bring in Patricia Pittman, professor of health policy at George Washington University. Patricia, it's always good to get your perspective on this. I know you have various trackers for the health-care jobs. And as we know, this is not an area that was hit in the same way as, say, leisure and hospitality that we've been talking about.

And indeed, health care is where we are seeing shortages. So that implies also that there is still further room for growth if people can find people to hire. How is that effort going? Is there an education or skills, reskilling effort underway to find those people?

PATRICIA PITTMAN: Yeah, so thanks for having me. Just a comment on the data that Brian presented, it's important to recognize that many of the areas where there has been-- there have been layoffs in health care and that are now recovering is ambulatory care, in other words outside of the hospital-- dentist's office, even primary care. And some parts of the hospital there are elective procedures, but not in the ICU, not in the intensive care units, and not in the part of the hospital where COVID patients are being treated. In those areas there are continued chronic shortages.

So the new estimator that we are presenting today is an important advancement in the sense that we've been able to track the supply of ICU workers at the state level thus far. But this new estimator, which we are producing in partnership with two companies, Premier and IQVIA, as well as NACCHO, the Association of Local Health Departments, is able to look at the supply of ICU workers at the county level. So, of course, you know that within states, there are rural and urban areas. And they have a very different situation.

And what we're seeing is that although things are much better than they were a couple of months ago, the underlying chronic shortages in ICUs, particularly in rural areas, is really something to keep your eye on right now. So what we've done is look at areas where the projected increase of current hospitalizations is so high that there will not be enough physicians in ICUs. And we find about 109-- I'm sorry, 209 counties are in-- essentially in crisis mode in terms of staffing and another 12 in what we call contingency, which is not quite as bad.

So we're not out of the woods yet. And, obviously, this information is important for not only the federal government in terms of deploying personnel across states and counties, but also for local leaders that need to provide data for the conversation with their constituents around the extent to which the public health measures can be loosened, and whether consumers are feeling more confident about not wearing masks, et cetera. So it's important for consumers and for local county leaders in those 209 counties to be aware that they are not out of the woods and they need to be very careful.

MYLES UDLAND: And I guess, Patricia, as you guys think about the path of a pandemic, that we certainly hope is traveled through the spring, where cases fall and hospitalizations fall and more vaccinations ramp up, I mean, is that also coinciding with an issue that we've discussed several times, which is burnout among a lot of health-care professionals who have been working with COVID patients and that while the burden on the hospital system may be going down, as you're outlining, the available resources are declining at the same time. And I don't know if that's something you guys are seeing. But it would certainly seem like a concern based on how you're presenting this here.

PATRICIA PITTMAN: Absolutely. And it's not universal, right? It's in certain areas where we've had chronic shortages before. But the way that hospitals deal with these shortages when they have a surge of COVID patients are first of all, people are working more shifts. Second of all, they have more patients to take care of.

So in the case of the physicians, for example, in ICUs, which we call intensivists, the normal ratio would be about eight patients to one physician. They're now seeing in some areas of the country 30 patients. And similarly for nurses, it's usually one to one. They're sometimes seeing one to three or four.

And so what happens then is not only the burnout of the people who are specialized ICU workers, but they're floating people in from other parts of the hospital who are very worried about whether they have the training and the knowledge of the technology and of the procedures. So that puts additional strain on those staff there that are being floated into the ICU but not necessarily trained for that kind of a job. So both groups are under a lot of stress right now.

BRIAN SOZZI: Patricia, what's the what's the outlook for job creation in the health-care sector as we start to get vaccinated?

PATRICIA PITTMAN: So there's no question that ambulatory care will begin to bounce back. And presumably all of the hospital jobs will normalize as well. It's one of the contradictions of the situation is that even in hospitals that were very concerned about the shortage of nurses in the ICU, they were laying off nurses in other parts of the hospital that were not prepared to work in the ICU.

So we have a problem of skills rather than personnel. It's not just a shortage of nursing. It's a shortage of certain types of nurses and certain types of physicians that we need right now. And you can't just train up as quickly as we might hope for these kinds of jobs.

But I think there's a fair amount of collaboration that's happening across hospitals and across counties, which is a really encouraging sign. It hadn't been occurring before. And there are other strategies for addressing the crisis. But it's not-- it's not ideal, and they need help.

JULIE HYMAN: All right, Patricia, thank you so much for being here. Patricia Pittman is a professor of health policy at George Washington University.