More than two years after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the United States, the pandemic continues to affect communities across the country and has pushed health care systems to the brink.
The latest challenge: long wait times and staffing issues.
Representatives of health care groups said the pandemic worsened staffing issues, with many staff members switching employers and even leaving the industry, in what Florida Hospital Association President Mary Mayhew is calling “one of the worst staffing shortages hospitals have faced in decades.”
Representatives of health care groups said worker shortages can affect access to care for patients and force providers to bring in temporary help from staffing agencies, which drives up expenses.
According to the American Hospital Association, since February 2020, hospital employment has decreased by nearly 94,000, including a decrease of more than 8,000 between August 2021 and September 2021 alone. Job vacancies for various types of nursing personnel also increased by up to 30% between 2019 and 2020.
“We’re not immune to the workforce challenges and nursing shortage seen across the country,” AdventHealth communications representative Jose Luis said. “Patient safety is and will always be our No. 1 priority, and even during the COVID surge we found innovative ways to ensure we had the appropriate level and size of care teams.”
Luis said AdventHealth has hosted numerous career expos around the Central Florida Division to address this issue. More than 400 people were hired at the March career expo at the Dr. Phillips Center.
Orlando Health also is in the process of holding a variety of career events almost every week.
Since March 1, 2021, Orlando Health said it has hired 9,189 new team members.
“The staffing challenges are a real thing right now, for all the reasons that we (health care organizations) are all having these issues,” Orlando Health Horizon West President Brian Wetzel said.
Despite the staffing shortages, some local, experienced health care workers have said it has not been so easy to find a job.
A nurse in West Orange County — who asked to remain anonymous — said she moved to the area in December 2021 and has not been able to secure a job with benefits since.
As a nurse for 12 years in various fields and specialties, who has been in the medical field for 16 years, she always thought she would be set in life once she got her nursing degree.
That has not been the case.
The nurse said she has applied for about 70 positions with organizations, including AdventHealth, Orlando Health, UCF in Leesburg, remote jobs, urgent cares and Disney.
Of the many applications, she has gotten about six interviews.
“I did turn down one offer, because again there were no benefits or retirement plan,” she said. “I got desperate and recently accepted a wound care job that is only PRN status — or as needed.”
What has made her job search so difficult? She did not get vaccinated for COVID-19 — a decision she made because of lasting neurological side effects from vaccinations she received earlier in life.
The nurse said about half of her interviews asked her verbally about her vaccine status, and about one-fourth of job applications online asked about her vaccine status — without an option to indicate a medical exemption.
“I feel like this is part of my problem; I honestly never ever thought it would be this difficult,” she said.” I feel like the only way to get a job now is to go to a job fair put on by the hospital and connect directly with a manager or go through a travel agency or headhunter. It’s truly a mess — especially with the critical staffing shortages going on; their current staff continues to struggle and get burned out. It’s hard to even want to be a nurse anymore —especially when we are starting to see nurses get prosecuted and jail time for errors.”
West Orange resident Kristy Ann said her husband has experienced some of the same issues.
Ann said her husband is an EMT and has been looking for a patient care technology job at night.
She shared her husband has applied for, and attended, multiple interviews with AdventHealth and Orlando Health, which both have multiple positions for which he is qualified.
“He always gets face-to-face interviews, and it goes really well, but they tell him that they think that he will ‘be bored,’” she said. “Literally every time. I am not sure who they are hoping to hire.”
A Winter Garden resident and cardiac telemetry tech — who asked to remain anonymous — said because of an overabundance of physical therapists and staffing issues, there are dangerous physical therapist ratios and a “lack of empathy for the staff.”
Multiple Winter Garden residents and nurses said they also have seen the staff shortages first-hand.
According to a survey by the AHA’s American Organization for Nursing Leadership, one of the top challenges and reasons for health care staffing shortages reported by nurses was “emotional health and wellbeing of staff.” The burnout, combined with ongoing COVID-19 surges, as well as other existing health care workforce pressures, has left hospitals across the country to deal with the shortages.
A sonographer and West Orange resident — who asked to remain anonymous — said she has been experiencing staffing and hiring issues when it comes to OB/GYN sonographers for OB/GYN practices.
She said it is more beneficial to a sonographer to do travel assignments because of the pay and other benefits they receive from travel agencies.
She has recommended to her superiors that they offer sign-on bonuses or consider going through travel agencies to offer travel assignments with the practice to provide adequately staffed offices.
“I am told that they would need to check to see if sign-on bonuses are within the company’s budget and have not commented on the travel assignment suggestion that I had,” she said. “Until then, we remain understaffed, with little to no qualified applicants for the positions.”
Wetzel said although staffing has been a challenge almost since the pandemic began, Orlando Health has maintained its level of service.
“It’s important that everybody understands we, as a health care system overall, have done a really wonderful job at maintaining that high-quality care that this community has grown to expect from us, even through the most difficult staffing challenges,” he said. “Have we had to ask our team to push themselves a little bit and help us out in picking up additional shifts or maybe taking on a larger patient panel than perhaps they have had in the past? We have had to do those things, and the team has risen to those requests in a remarkable way.
“We have so many team members that have stuck in there with us throughout this entire pandemic experience, and that’s really the heart of Orlando Health,” he said. “Those team members who have shown up every day doing the great work that they do, supporting their fellow team members and our patients, in just the most remarkable ways through some of the most difficult times we have had.”
Orlando Health was named the highest ranking health care organization in the state of Florida on Forbes’ America’s Best Large Employers list in February.
Some residents also have expressed fear of decreased quality because of the desperate search for health care providers to fill staffing positions.
Ocoee resident Terry Grimes recently had a triple bypass surgery and then was released to a rehab facility.
Grimes said he arrived at the facility at about 6 p.m. and was put in a bed, where he did not see anybody at all.
“I’m in a private room by myself, not able to get around,” Grimes said. “After open heart surgery? Really?”
He shared he had a button to push and could not reach anybody and was unable to get out of bed. He said no one came to check on him until 7 the next morning, and the staff did not know when they would receive his medication.
That same morning, Grimes called an ambulance to take him back to the hospital. He then decided to complete his rehab at home.
“At least I know what to expect here at my home,” he said.
Oakland resident Leyda Figueroa said she recently visited a hospital because of a strong stomachache.
Within 10 minutes, she had her vitals taken and was transported to a room. She said she waited one hour in the room before a nurse came to tell her that they were going to put an IV in and draw blood. She relayed she preferred to see a doctor first, and they agreed. She said she waited two-and-one-half hours and then decided to leave.
“We went out and told the nurse that we were leaving and they told us, “OK, no problem,’” Fugueroa said. “The nurses were all talking in the nurse station and from what we could understand, the early morning shift does not have doctors.”
A Windermere resident who asked to remain anonymous said she had a bad experience at a local general practice facility. She made an appointment to have her thyroid checked as well as a standard checkup with blood work.
The resident said she waited more than an hour before she was seen and told to come back in a week for the results. At that second appointment, the staff informed her they had misplaced her thyroid results.
She had the tests run again and waited at her next appointment for over an hour where they then told her the same thing had happened.
After requesting to go to a Quest for the blood results, the Quest staff informed her the location had sent the wrong prescription and that they would have to run all the tests again, and she would have to pay out of pocket,
“I will never go there again,” she said. “It was horrible.”
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
AdventHealth is set to open its Winter Garden hospital on Fowler Grove Boulevard in May to complement its emergency services unit. At completion, the five-story tower will have 80 beds and will offer inpatient services including advanced gynecology, cardiology, gastroenterology, general surgery, neurology and spine health, and urology.
President and CEO of AdventHealth Winter Garden Kari Vargas said the facility will bring 400 medical and support jobs to the community.
“There is definitely a need, and we want to be attentive to our community,” Vargas said. “You hear a lot about labor shortages. We have not had a significant challenge finding team members to come work here.”
Wetzel said his team is always looking for staff in Horizon West, including positions available right now such as respiratory therapists, imaging specialists and nurses.
To combat staffing issues, Orlando Health has created a Corporate Resource Team, a centralized group of health professionals who deploy team members for specific needs throughout the Orlando Health system.
“We want to make sure we are always taking care of our patients in a safe and compassionate way,” he said. “And that is what we will continue to do.”
UPCOMING HIRING EVENTS
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