Healthier Together: Staffing remains a major issue within health care industry

SEATTLE — Nurses who went on strike last year sounded the alarm on staffing at area hospitals and medical facilities.

Many of them complained that not enough is being done to ensure safe staffing and that it’s creating dangerous situations.

Their feelings were echoed by the Washington State Nurses Association.

Nurses hit the picket lines last year In Everett, and in Seattle in 2023, targeting companies like Providence Medical and Virginia Mason.

In many cases, labor actions usually focus on pay and benefits, but recently, staffing appeared to take center stage.

Dr. Bianca Frogner, Director of the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University of Washington, has looked at the issue.

She said staffing is starting to stabilize, but some specific areas within health care are not back.

“Long-term care facilities like skilled nursing facilities, rural areas are really struggling to fill in slots, and then certain segments of the health care industry, like those that are trying to figure out mental health care,” said Dr. Frogner.

Dr. Frogner said long vacancies for open positions, turnover, and retirements are contributing to the lack of staff. Some jobs stay open for weeks and months.

In 2023, the Washington Legislature passed new regulations regarding hospital staffing and this year. Hospitals will have to establish staffing committees and submit staffing plans to the Washington State Department of Health.

According to a report released this year by Nursing Solutions Inc., a recruitment firm for medical professionals, the registered nurse vacancy remains elevated at 9.9% nationally.

That’s 5.8% lower than last year, but healthcare firms still said that close to half — 47.8% — reported a vacancy rate in excess of 10%.

“Tufts (University) saw a need for physical therapists in the PNW at large,” said Evan Papa, professor at Tufts University’s School of Medicine. He spoke to KIRO 7 and admitted the issue of training and employing medical professionals like physical therapists prompted Tufts School of Medicine to open a branch of its school in Seattle.

Papa said that’s a first for the university that has most of its medical school facilities in the Boston area, where the school is located.

“Seattle really stood out as an area with a record-high need for PTs (physical therapists) — that’s essentially why we ended up there,” said Papa.

Striking nurses often said that both patient care and the safety of nurses and other hospital staff is at risk due to staffing levels.

Dr. Frogner said it’s taken 30 months for hospitals to just get back to pre-pandemic staffing levels, but she sees progress continuing.

“As our economy might lose jobs in other sectors, health care really benefits. It’s an opportunity to recruit workers into the health care industry,” said Dr. Frogner.