On top of other challenges health care systems have faced as Iowa begins to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, leaders at area hospitals say they are grappling not only with workforce shortages but also with what it means to support a health care team that has been traumatized by COVID-19 over the past year.
Chief executive officers from the hospitals in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City said this week one of their biggest concerns as their systems plan for a post-pandemic future is helping their health care providers cope with lingering stress and burnout, even as recruitment and staffing remain a challenge.
For nearly a year, front line health care workers across Iowa have cared for thousands infected with the novel coronavirus, which at times threatened to overwhelm hospitals. They worked long hours, while oftentimes putting themselves at risk for infection — an experience that is “not different from going through a war,” University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said.
Even with the COVID-19 vaccines slowly making their way into arms, Gunasekaran said many of his providers say they don’t see the shot as a light at the end of the tunnel because they still are caring for patients with the virus.
“They are still living in it,” Gunasekaran said during a panel sponsored by the Corridor Business Journal.
The hospital executives said they all are working to understand how they can better support their staff in the coming weeks and days.
Though it’s been a long-standing issue across the state, the pandemic has illustrated how dire the health care workforce shortages are for area hospitals. This has forced officials to think more broadly on how they would solidify the workforce, including nurses, physicians and other qualified positions.
“It’s not a bed shortage, it’s a staff shortage,” said Tim Charles, CEO of Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. “We had plenty of beds, but the challenge was having enough staff to help address patients in those beds.”
To cope, Mercy Medical Center relied on traveling nurses to address gaps in staffing, which cost $120 per hour per nurse, Charles said.
Another challenge that has faced hospitals has been the inconsistency of communication among local, state and federal partners, said Michelle Niermann, CEO of UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids.
That’s still the case for other policies announced by state leaders, such as the online COVID-19 vaccination scheduling system, which will be created by Microsoft, that state public health officials plan to implement in the coming weeks.
Area hospitals say they have not received much information about the new system from state officials, and add they have questions on how that statewide system will interface with their electronic medical record systems and online platforms they currently are using to sign up patients for appointments.
“It’s a mystery to me how that will all come together,” Niermann said.
Hospitals in the Corridor, as well as many health care providers across the state, are at the forefront of the COVID-19 vaccination effort, which kicked off in December. State vaccination guidelines opened at the beginning of this month to a wider subset of the population under Phase 1B.
However, the rollout is going slowly, according to area health care systems, who say they can vaccinate at a higher rate but are limited by the current supply.
“For those of us on the front line, we’re definitely experiencing a shortage,” Gunasekaran said.
“We can vaccinate more patients than what we’re being provided vaccines for. That puts us in the difficult position of deciding who we vaccinate.”
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