January 26, 2022
Organizations warn that operations are impacted & encourage applicants
St. Peter's Health and Shodair Children's Hospital, two of the largest health care organizations in Helena, are warning the community today that critical staffing shortages and the rise of Omicron cases are affecting the ability of both organizations to operate at full capacity. Patients should be prepared for the possibility of longer wait times for some services, postponed procedures, and limited availability of inpatient beds.
“We are currently operating under contingency standards of care,” said St. Peter’s Health Regional Medical Center President and Chief Medical Officer Shelly Harkins, M.D. “Right now, we do not have the available staffing to meet the demand for inpatient beds, which is growing as we are starting to see an increase in hospitalizations due to the current COVID-19 omicron surge. This means many patients will have longer wait times in the ER, as we may have to discharge one patient before another can be admitted. Our ability to transfer patients to another facility is also limited because other hospitals in our region and across the country are unfortunately experiencing the same thing.”
The demand for mental health care services also continues to grow, yet Shodair is facing the same staffing and operational challenges. “We have a waitlist for young people needing immediate inpatient psychiatric care as staffing challenges and positive COVID-19 cases remains a challenge. We do have availability for appointments in our outpatient clinics,” Shodair CEO Craig Aasved said.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the healthcare sector has lost nearly half a million, or one in five, health care workers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020. Before the pandemic, the turnover rate at St. Peter’s was around 4%, but has continued to trend upward and is now close to 15%. Together, St. Peter’s and Shodair employ over 2,000 community members and combined have over 330 open jobs to fill.
“Health care workers at St. Peter’s and around the country are taking an early retirement, leaving the industry entirely because of burnout and moral injury, or pursuing more lucrative travel positions because the demand for workers is at an unprecedented high,” said St. Peter’s Health Chief People and Communications Officer Andrea Groom. “The Omicron surge is exacerbating these increasing staffing shortages, as we currently have a record number of staff call offs due to COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine.”
Recruitment and retention efforts
St. Peter's and Shodair are aggressively ramping up recruitment and retention efforts to compete for talent in a limited workforce. Both organizations gifted 80 hours of COVID-19 leave (Shodair) / extended illness hours (St. Peter’s) in 2020 and raised their minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2021. St. Peter’s recently announced a $3 million investment in base wage increases over and above standard cost of living increases, impacting 80% of its staff over the last nine months, and the organization plans to continue increasing wages in 2022 to be market competitive. The organization has also invested nearly $1 million in crisis shift pay and other incentives in response to critical staffing shortages in recent months.
St. Peter’s and Shodair are also working closely with local education partners like Helena College and Carroll College to grow the pipeline of the next generation of caregivers, including the recently launched accelerated nursing program and the Master of Social Work program at Carroll College.
Shodair has increased the number of students doing rotations in the building by 30%. Next month, the organization will kick off a year-long Registered Nurse Residency Program. This effort will give new nursing graduates the opportunity to learn the specialty of child and adolescent psychiatry, while being supported through classroom, education, and clinical training. The organization is also a certified trauma informed facility, which contributes to a culture that cares about the well-being of employees through a research-based model, Aasved said. This hospital-wide training continues to have positive impacts on employee turnaround and retention.
“We recognize money is not the primary retention driver, so we’ll continue to grow our benefits, education and development, and employee engagement programs this year to support our team members and their families in all aspects of their health and wellness, as well as provide more concrete opportunities for their growth and advancement,” said Groom. “The pool of available candidates to replace the staff members we lose is shrinking by the day. While our staffing shortages are a direct result of the pandemic, this isn’t a temporary challenge. This is very much our new reality in health care.”
St. Peter’s and Shodair encourage community members to continue taking measures to stay safe and healthy, including seeking preventative health care. Community members are encouraged to see their primary care provider or visit an urgent care facility first, and only using the emergency room for severe conditions and life-threatening emergencies, which include behavioral health crises. Both facilities still require masking for all employees and visitors to help ensure safety.
Even though staffing shortages are system-wide, St. Peter’s is shifting more resources to the Emergency Department to help triage and treat patients who may not necessarily need to be admitted to the hospital. Shodair has also shifted some of its providers to outpatient care to increase that patient load and support the needs in the community.
"There are things our community can do to lessen the impact on our stressed health care system,” said Groom. "Please be gracious to your friends, family and neighbors working in health care. The support we receive from people in the community is so uplifting and impactful. It has been a remarkably challenging two years for those on the frontlines of the pandemic, and they continue to show up despite the mounting challenges to care for our community."