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Two months ago, I found myself in an emergency room in Michigan with a 104-degree fever. I’d taken Advil to bring it down, but it wasn’t working. And, as a true hypochondriac, I was panicking.

Thankfully, it was just a rough case of the flu (the “man flu,” my wife chided).

Nothing was fun about the 4-hour experience. I hate needles. I almost always pass out when I get my blood drawn. And hospital gowns are the worst.

But the one remarkable part of the experience was the attentiveness of the nurse. He calmed me down when he saw me tensing up. He spoke in layman’s terms when the doctor started dropping scary WebMD medical jargon. And he told me all about his antique car collection when he could sense I needed a distraction. It felt like I had my own personal caregiver guiding me through the experience.

So, when I read recently that the healthcare industry is facing a massive nursing talent crisis, I started to wonder how it might change the quality of care I received.

And if “crisis” sounds a little dramatic, consider these numbers:

Now, I’ll admit: I was a failed math major in college. But I can add.

And if we combine the first and third numbers above, it paints a pretty gloomy picture. Based on conservative estimates, the US could be facing a massive healthcare talent shortage of more than 1 million nurses within seven years.


What Will that Mean for Quality of Care?

This isn’t just about nurses, either.

The American Association of Medical Colleges also projects that, by 2025, there could be a shortfall of as much as 94,000 physicians – a gap that will further compress the talent market and make it more difficult for healthcare facilities to maintain adequate staffing levels, let alone handpick the best people.

What will this mean – for patients and the organizations responsible for their health?

It ain’t pretty.

  • A 2014 study found that increasing a nurse’s workload by one patient increased the likelihood of a patient dying by 7%.
  • One academic paper found that nurse understaffing led to a 23% jump in nurse burnout and turnover.
  • A University of Pennsylvania study found that lower staffing ratios increased the odds of readmission penalties – which can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars – by 25%.

For patients like me and you, those numbers feel a little scary. For hospitals and healthcare organizations, they’ve got to be downright frightening.

As Kathleen D. Sanford, Senior VP and CNO at Catholic Health Initiatives, put it: “I believe the nursing shortage we’re going through now is unlike any we’ve seen before. And unless we do something totally disruptive, our communities are going to be harmed very shortly by it.”


How Will the Industry Respond?

At this point, there’s no way to hide from the storm.

Even if some Baby Boomers postpone retirement, studies show that nursing and medical schools lack the faculty and resources to educate enough new nurses and doctors to meet demand. One report found that 70,000 nursing school applicants were turned away in 2015 due to insufficient staff and other factors.

So, how will healthcare organizations respond?

My hunch is that some will stick with the same old hiring playbook – ramping up spending on outsourced agencies and job boards and hoping that investment increases the quantity (and quality) of applicants coming in. (Don’t hold your breath.)

But I also think some organizations will start to think differently.

They’ll take a more proactive approach to the crisis by identifying and engaging nursing and physician candidates earlier. They’ll develop a database of leads they can build relationships with over time. And, when those people are ready to make a career move, it’ll increase the likelihood that the right candidates – the ones who have choices – will make that organization their first choice.

Simply put: These “different” organizations will hire with purpose.

They’ll lead with their brand, their culture, their values. They’ll do everything they can to align their unique opportunity and mission to the unique aspirations and values of the people they want – and need – to attract. And they’ll leverage analytics to bring some science into a talent acquisition process that has a history of being very unscientific.

This “hire with purpose” approach won’t solve the industry’s talent supply and demand issues, of course. But it will position the organizations that use it attract and hire the supply that’s there over their competition; to stand out from the pack, control their destiny and insulate their business from the shock the rest of their industry is about to feel.

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