Understaffing in Nursing: Costs and Opportunities

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Written by Katherine Zheng, PhD, BSN Content Writer, IntelyCare
Busy nurses at a care facility.

Understaffing in nursing continues to affect healthcare systems nationwide. The U.S. Bureau of Labor estimates that 275,000 additional nurses are required to fill openings, while over 600,000 nurses report an intention to leave the workforce by 2027. With the supply of nurses falling far short of meeting the demand for patient care, the need for effective staffing solutions is at an all-time high.

The consequences of understaffing in nursing stretch system-wide, impacting staff wellbeing, patient safety, and operational costs. Accordingly, healthcare stakeholders must work together to make staffing solutions a priority. For facility leaders looking to combat this issue, we discuss how you can identify and seize innovative opportunities to improve your staffing strategy.

The Costs of Understaffing

Many facilities reap sustained, financial losses from the ongoing nursing shortage. Understaffing can lead to increased operational spending on a number of fronts, with many studies showcasing how staffing ratios can influence costs of care and labor.

Costs of Care

Hospitals with better nurse-to-patient ratios deliver higher quality care, which reduces patient-related complications or errors. This can simultaneously improve patient outcomes and decrease operational care costs. As an example, one study conducted across 87 acute care hospitals in Illinois projected that a 1:4 nurse-to-patient ratio would save hospitals with higher ratios about $117 million in excess care costs each year.

Costs of Labor

While turnover can lead to understaffing, understaffing can also lead to turnover. Poor nurse-to-patient ratios lead to nurse burnout, which commonly drives nurses away from their jobs or the profession altogether.

High turnover can present significant financial losses for facilities, due to costs going into frequent hiring, training, and onboarding. In fact, studies have estimated the costs associated with nurse turnover can range anywhere between $6.6 million and $10.5 million each year.

How To Address Understaffing: 3 Long-Term Solutions

The reasons for the nursing shortage in the United States range widely, some of which stem from a lack of solutions to address understaffing at the facility level. Now that you’ve learned about the financial impacts of understaffing in nursing, here’s how you can improve your staffing strategy to save on costs and foster a healthier workforce.

1. Utilize a Staffing Partner

Working with staffing companies has become a popular avenue for filling vacant nursing shifts on a whim. Staffing agencies typically assign contract nurses to work short-term placements that can’t be filled by hospital staff. But, while staffing agencies provide a quick-fix, seeking out a true staffing partner will help you stabilize your workforce and ensure that even temporary coverage is cost-effective in the long run.

Staffing partners will take the time to hire, onboard, and train nursing staff that are matched to your facilities’ openings with precision. Partners will also sometimes help you fill permanent shifts in addition to temporary ones. This reduces administrative burden and costs for your facility while providing qualified staff that are ready when you need them.

2. Optimize Your Float Pool

Unlike agency nurses, float pool nurses are hired and trained by healthcare facilities, with the flexibility to “float” to different units as needed. Float pools have been around for decades, serving as an early, evidence-based strategy to help address understaffing in nursing.

Since their conception, additional research has shown that the management of float pools may matter more than simply having them in place. Some float pools are coordinated through outdated or inefficient systems, making it difficult to ensure that staff are actually available on short notice. This can harm patients in the long-run and end up increasing operational costs.

There are many opportunities to implement newer systems that more efficiently and reliably match your float pool nurses to vacancies at your facility, especially with the help of artificial intelligence tools. As such, the benefits of investing in an updated, electronic platform can be worthwhile.

3. Prioritize Nurse Retention

Ensuring that your units are adequately staffed through a staffing partner and your float pool will go a long way to support and retain your current workforce. However, there are many other ways you can optimize the work environment to ensure your nurses remain satisfied in their roles. For example, you can:

While facilities may want to frontload efforts into filling vacancies quickly, it’s just as crucial to focus on retaining staff through more holistic measures. Job satisfaction is a key reason why nurses decide to stay or leave their roles, so comprehensively taking care of your staff will help reduce turnover and minimize future gaps in staffing.

Ready to Tackle Understaffing in Nursing at Your Facility?

Now that you’ve identified opportunities to address understaffing, you may be wondering where to start. We understand that reevaluating your staffing strategy can be stressful, and we’re here to help. Learn more about utilizing our innovative staffing solutions by partnering with us today.