Lessons from the Pandemic: Creating a Stronger Workforce

While other industries navigate through the great resignation, the health care industry will face an even greater upheaval. If it wasn’t already clear, the pandemic demonstrated that people are at the crux of health care. The US health care industry, as massive as it is, comprising over 19.7% of gross domestic product in 2020, is a human being business.

The health care system and the human beings working within it, already operating on the slimmest of resources, fractured under the weight of the pandemic. It wasn’t just the volume of patients but the compounding forces both internal and external to the health care system: the politicization of public health, insufficient support for childcare when learning pivoted virtually, the disruption of social support systems from a seemingly endless semi-quarantine state, and reexamination about priorities in the balance between one’s personal and professional life.

In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how instrumental nurses are as the woman and manpower in the health care system. Certainly, staffing shortages in everything from environmental to food services affected patient care delivery, but anyone who has ever worked in a hospital knows how, in “normal” situations, nurses pick up the slack and fill in where necessary to ensure that patients receive the care that they need.

So, it really is time (long past time) to turn our attention to people first and foremost in the health care system. We need to apply our most precious asset—the people who work in health care—with more sophistication, allocating the human resources in the system effectively to produce the outcome we want. That does not mean operating the system at the thinnest of margins relying on the goodness of people to work extra shifts, sacrifice their personal lives for work, and always give 105%. 

We must staff for, in a fiscally responsible manner, the well-being of people working in health care. We must build systems that support individuals and teams to be able to bring their best selves to work. As I outline in Strategic Planning for a Very Different Nursing Workforce, we must plan for the wise use of nursing expertise and creating a positive professional practice environment to transition to a more resilient health care system supported by the full utilization of the knowledge and skills of registered nurses.

Rather than approaching this hazardously, we need a strategic process, applying a systematic, thoughtful, and disciplined approach to imagine, prioritize, and align our energies, resources, and actions to attain a desired future where care delivery models serve our patients better while also ensuring a culture of well-being for providers. We certainly know how to do some of this, and together we will apply our creativity and innovation to reimagine and learn to create a better work environment and stronger workforce.


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