How Hospitals Handle Staff Shortages

Having enough nurses, doctors, technicians, and support staff working at all times is absolutely crucial for any hospital. With lives quite literally hanging in the balance, being short-staffed can potentially jeopardize patient care and safety.

Yet chronic staffing shortages pose an ongoing challenge that hospitals must continuously grapple with. From rising patient volumes to an aging nursing workforce and fewer workers entering medical fields, the staffing crunch shows no signs of letting up.

How do hospitals ensure adequate staffing when dealing with staff shortages? They strategically utilize different staffing sources and solutions.

Ramping Up Recruitment

For any long-term staffing needs, hospitals make aggressive efforts to hire more permanent staff through recruitment campaigns targeting both experienced and newly graduated clinicians. Offering competitive compensation packages, flexible schedules, and emphasizing workplace culture can help sweeten the pitch.

However, riding out prolonged staffing gaps just by boosting recruitment alone is extremely difficult. Hospitals need to get creative bridging temporary gaps too.

Calling in the Reinforcements

To supplement shortages, hospitals frequently rely on outside staffing agencies and services to supply contingency staff. A few common sources are:

  • Travel Nurses – These nationally recruited nurses take temporary assignments at understaffed hospitals for anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Travel nursing has grown rapidly in recent years.
  • Per Diem Workers – Also known as PRN (pro re nata) staff, these are locally-based clinicians who can pick up occasional shifts to cover holes in a schedule.
  • Staffing CompaniesEmergency room staffing companies like SouthlandMD specialize in quickly deploying batches of temporary ER staff like nurses, techs, and assistants to shorthanded hospitals.

While more expensive than permanent hires, these stopgap solutions prevent shorthanded hospitals from being forced to divert ambulances, go on staffing bypass, or even temporarily shutter certain departments.

Getting Resourceful

Beyond outside staffing sources, hospitals work on multiple fronts to strategically reallocate their existing workforce and make it as efficient as possible:

  • Adjusting Schedules – Moving to staggered shifts, cross-training staff to be able to float between units, offering OT incentives.
  • Task Reassignment – Shifting routine tasks like bathing/transporting patients to non-licensed staff allows nurses to focus on higher licensure duties.
  • Staffing Software – Apps now optimize complicated staff scheduling based on patient volumes, acuity, census data and employee availability.
  • Technology Automation – Exploring ways AI, telehealth and other tech can reduce staffing burdens for certain tasks and monitoring.

Although not a complete solution, methods like these assist hospitals in maximizing their current staff until additional support arrives.

Embracing Workforce Mobility

No matter how well hospitals get ahead of it, staffing volatility is inevitably going to persist in healthcare. That is why embracing workforce mobility and flexibility is so vital.

Hospital networks cultivate internal mobility by enabling staff to seamlessly pick up shifts at sister facilities. They also forge regional partnerships with staffing companies giving them priority access to temporary workers in times of need.

This cross-pollination of fluid staffing supply and demand helps create a more balanced, adequately staffed healthcare workforce locally. Staff know their services will always be in demand, while hospitals can rest assured that they will never lack sufficient clinical coverage.


At the end of the day, maintaining proper hospital staffing levels is a continuous juggling act. Even when hospitals think they are finally fully staffed, situations like disease outbreaks, natural disasters or unexpected turnover can suddenly leave them shorthanded again.

While hospitals must absolutely focus on long-term recruitment and retention, having contingency staffing plans and outside staffing vendor relationships is equally important for weathering inevitable shortages and staffing storms. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but rather an ongoing cycle of proactive planning, resourcefulness, and quick reaction capabilities.

News Reporter