By SCOTT O’NEIL IWV Economic Dev. Corp.– In the first article in this series, we provided an overview of national and state trends that have fueled challenges in recruitment and retention. There are almost twice as many job openings as unemployed workers in our country — the highest level of vacancies since the Bureau of Labor and Statistics began collecting that data. As the labor pool shrinks, hiring costs have soared – especially in California.
Remote and independent healthcare facilities took a hit during the pandemic. Resources were diverted and investments were made in COVID-related lab services and equipment, vaccine access and distribution, protective equipment and other precautions aimed toward reducing outbreaks of infection. Although providers (the physicians, radiologists and other professionals that deliver care) and insurance companies received the promised reimbursements for those expenses, campuses like Ridgecrest Regional Hospital were left with ravaged finances and no additional funding support.
In March 2020, RRH was still recovering from the historic earthquakes that rocked our region when only a few months later our nation was in the grip of the pandemic. We will explore further the strain that COVID put on our healthcare institutions, but first let’s remember that there were already a variety of moving parts that have changed government-regulated funding and access to healthcare at the federal, state and local scenes. Here are a few sobering statistics:
• Rural areas are 5 times more likely than urban areas to experience physician shortages
• More than 50 percent of physicians and nurses are within 13 years of retirement age.
• The aging general population is increasing the demand on physicians
• Over the next decade, the physician shortage could grow to more than 100,000 nationwide, and this is projected to get worse.
As we move halfway through our third year in the “COVID era,” we have also seen how the pandemic put additional stress on our frontline workers — prompting many of them to leave the field. RRH has not been immune to these and is facing similar pressure.
This places an increased burden on healthcare recruitment and retention. For RRH, the challenge is tougher. It is competing against metropolitan employers in healthcare who can offer more robust options for socializing, specialized services, infrastructure and quality of life than our community currently can.
According to RRH staff, some of the feedback shared by healthcare professionals who have either declined to work here or declined to stay includes:
• restricted upward mobility opportunities
• limited higher-level healthcare services that can provide more advanced services (neonatal ICU, heart surgery, etc.)
• no direct access to a four-year university for those looking to continue their educations
• limited opportunities for employment for a spouse looking to co-relocate
• lack of public transportation (air service, commuter train, etc.)
• limited activities for younger professionals.
RRH is working to mitigate some of these limiting factors that are within their area of influence. The hospital is expanding its current partnership with Cerro Coso Community College to create an RN program here starting in 2023. The hospital has also had a successful earn-to-learn program that helps current employees continue their education and refine their skills. RRH has worked over the last several years to invest one-time funds in state-of-the-art equipment and tools. But some of these issues — such as inadequate temporary housing for traveling professionals, childcare, a community pool, etc — are beyond the hospital’s reach; we need community solutions.
Another component to keep in mind is that healthcare itself is a significant component of quality of life. Investments made by RRH have helped improve care and attract newcomers. If we want to preserve those benefits for our community, it is imperative that we participate in the preservation of our hospital. The hospital is not the only major employer in the Indian Wells Valley that would benefit from community-based solutions that will enhance amenities that promote better recruitment and retention. In the final article in this series, we will explore some of the ways we can come together to help.