Supporting the wellbeing of healthcare professionals is vital to patient outcomes and system sustainability

  • 4 minutes
  • Posted on 13.05.2024

Supporting the wellbeing of healthcare professionals is vital to patient outcomes and system sustainability

Judith Hargreaves

VP Health Economics and Government Affairs at Mölnlycke Health Care

Healthcare professionals are under pressure. Stress and fatigue were a growing concern long before the pandemic put burnout under the spotlight. Now, amid a shortage of nurses and significant mental health issues among healthcare staff, governments, health systems and hospitals are facing a human resources crisis.

The medical technology sector can play a constructive role in this conversation. We view the recruitment and retention of healthcare professionals as a key feature of a sustainable healthcare system. To build resilience, we must address the wellbeing of the people who deliver services.

We can provide solutions that make their lives easier, more productive, more fulfilling. Tools and technologies that allow them to do the jobs they trained to do; the vocations they pursued when they embarked on careers in healthcare. Not only will this enhance the lives of nurses and physicians, but it will improve patient outcomes and reduce waste ‒ helping avoid readmissions and repeat procedures.

Acting on evidence

The first step in addressing this problem is to understand it. Where there are research gaps, it is important that we fill them. We need to know the scale of the problem and its causes so that we can co-design solutions.

Available data show that there are 35,000 nursing student vacancies in the US, as well as a shortfall in available trainers and educators at nursing schools. This suggests that, along with losing valuable, experienced staff, there are too few new graduates in the ‘pipeline’ to take up nursing posts.

We also need specific European data on which roles are associated with the highest risk of burnout. Based on the available evidence, we know that work-related stress is negatively affecting healthcare professionals’ performance and quality of life. For example, nurses working in intensive care units reported significant workplace burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic, while 83% of surgeons were at elevated risk of burnout during that time of additional stress.

Burnout in the operating rooms (OR) provides a clear example of healthcare professionals under serious strain which can be addressed if the right steps are taken. Stress factors include the heavy workload associated with surgery: the early starts and long working hours, the high stakes procedures and justified concerns about infection control.

Relieving pressure on staff

However, there are ways to ease some of this burden. A study has shown that 26% of circulating nurses’ time was spent outside the OR due to surgeon requests and supply issues. Put yourself in the shoes of a busy OR nurse retrieving surgical tools and disposables from supply cupboards, perhaps frustrated that you cannot easily locate what you need. For this, there are solutions, including pre-packed trays of supplies developed to meet the needs of OR staff. This is one less thing to worry about, one less source of frustration.

Digital tools are becoming more readily available and other technologies are coming on stream all the time. We still have some way to go to take full advantage of how digital solutions can streamline OR workflows, delivering the clarity and efficiency that professionals need in their workplace, but there is untapped potential to improve how healthcare works.

It is also encouraging to see the power of diagnostics, monitoring tools and wound care products to control the risk of healthcare-acquired infections (HAIs), which would otherwise contribute to the looming threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

HAIs are a daily concern for healthcare professionals. Not only do HAIs put patient safety at risk, increase demand for services and put pressure on healthcare budgets, but HAIs also damage the reputation of hospitals and healthcare providers. This can impact efforts to attract qualified staff. For healthcare professionals, HAIs are an additional source of strain and a cross-contamination risk that affect their wellbeing and their capacity to do their jobs.

Supporting quality of life and quality of care

To be clear, our goal must go beyond finding efficiencies in order to improve productivity. By reducing waste and streamlining workflows, we can give healthcare professionals time to focus on what matters to their working lives. This could include learning new skills, conducting research and, quite simply, taking the breaks they need to make their careers sustainable.

In a system where job satisfaction is sufficiently strong, healthcare can become a magnet for talented nurses and physicians ‒ and can hold onto the valuable experienced professionals it has today.

For policymakers, the incentive to invest in measures that address the quality of life of the healthcare workforce is high. Training professionals costs time and money; retention is cheaper. People who are stressed and tired are more likely to make mistakes, which has a negative impact on clinical outcomes and can incur financial costs.

Crucially, healthcare interventions that are delivered to the highest standard are less likely to require readmission or repeat surgery. Patients whose conditions are cured or well-managed need fewer medicines and fewer hospital appointments; the impact on primary and community care services, as well as on families whose caring roles may take them away from other activities, is reduced.

Sustainability is about more than making care greener. Resilience goes beyond providing beds and expanding laboratory services. Healthcare has a prized asset that can repay all of us with better outcomes: a skilled, but stressed, workforce. Let’s work together to support them.

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