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Staffing Shortages Joins Health Inequities as Patient Safety Risks

ECRI's list of this year’s patient safety risks names familiar issues, like health inequities, but now also includes staffing shortages and challenges.

Staffing shortages and the impact COVID-19 had on the medical workforce’s mental health are the leading patient safety risks for 2022, joining familiar roadblocks like health inequities and access to care on ECRI’s patient safety risk list.

The list, culled on an annual basis, pointed out that staffing shortages and mental health concerns can impact patient access to care. When patients do not have timely access to care, their health can deteriorate while waiting to see a medical professional.

These are not necessarily new trends, ECRI pointed out, but after two years of the pandemic, they have become exacerbated.

“Shortages in the healthcare workforce and mental health challenges were broadly known and well-documented for years,” Marcus Schabacker, MD, PhD, president and CEO of ECRI, stated publicly. “Both physicians and nurses were at risk of burnout, emotional exhaustion, and depression prior to 2020, but the pandemic made both issues significantly worse.”

According to ECRI, these staffing shortages have resulted in long wait times and even denial of healthcare. Organizations that do not have enough healthcare professionals on staff sometimes have to turn away patients experiencing medical issues.

Medical industry leaders and government officials alike should prioritize these leading patient safety risks, Schabacker added, lest they become the “new normal” in healthcare.

“Healthcare and government leaders now must aggressively manage these challenges amidst a lingering pandemic and a weakened health system by prioritizing recruitment, retention, and clinician resilience,” Schabacker said. “As leaders, their most important job is ensuring that patient health and safety are top priorities.”

Separate research has indicated that staffing shortages are a big concern in healthcare. In February 2022, the American College of Healthcare Executives released survey data finding that staffing and labor shortages are the biggest concern among healthcare CEOs.

Again, experts stated that concern about staffing shortages is not new, but the urgency is novel. ACHE said this was the first time since 2004 that financial challenges were not listed as the biggest CEO worries.

In addition to growing staffing shortages and the increased concern about medical worker mental health, ECRI named bias and racism in addressing patient safety as a leading risk in 2022. The conversation about health inequities has continued since it came to the forefront in 2020. As more healthcare leaders identify disparities in patient safety events, it will be important to understand how implicit bias plays into that.

The list also mentioned patient access to care, particularly health disparities in vaccine coverage and errors.

Rounding out the list, ECRI named the following patient safety risks:

  • Cognitive biases and diagnostic error
  • Nonventilator healthcare-associated pneumonia
  • Human factors in operationalizing telehealth
  • International supply chain disruptions
  • Products subject to emergency use authorization
  • Telemetry monitoring

Understanding these leading patient safety risks is critical for healthcare professionals, organization leaders and executives, and government officials to allocate resources, according to Brigitta Mueller, MD, the executive director of patient safety, risk, and quality at ECRI.

“ECRI’s report is a roadmap to help prioritize patient safety initiatives and allocate necessary resources that accelerates organizations in their total system approach to safety,” Mueller said in a statement. “We are here to help healthcare and government leaders as they finally address these longstanding issues in a comprehensive, forward-thinking way.”

The 2022 patient safety list doesn’t stray too far from the 2021 list. Issues like racial health disparities topped the list in 2021, with ECRI pointing out that these inequities are a public health crisis.

“Clearly, racial disparities will not disappear overnight,” Schabacker said of the 2021 list. “By profiling this issue, we are calling much-needed attention to this public health crisis.”

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