Although the pandemic is considered over, some Island healthcare providers are still feeling its effects on employment.
Martha’s Vineyard Hospital has nearly 200 openings, and a local hospice group has been looking for nurses for years.
Part of the issue comes down to burnout. Healthcare workers in the U.S. were struck by various difficulties during the pandemic, some of which did not directly relate to the virus. According to a brief from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Health Policy, the American healthcare workforce was put under extreme stress by the pandemic, which led to “burnout, exhaustion, and trauma.”
A survey conducted by the Massachusetts Medical Society revealed that over half of physicians who responded to the survey approached or were burned out, and a little over a quarter said they were likely to leave the medical field in the next two years.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Nurses Association revealed that 85 percent of nurses who responded to its survey felt healthcare in the commonwealth deteriorated over the past two years; 58 percent of respondents said that hospitals that need to rely on travel nurses have worse care.
Martha’s Vineyard also experiences difficulties in healthcare staffing. For the Island, it’s exacerbated by the housing crisis.
The on-Island institution that has the largest number of open positions is Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Although the hospital filled some of the 213 positions listed earlier this year, it currently still shows 190 open positions. This includes 31 open positions at Windemere Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, which the hospital operates.
Martha’s Vineyard Hospital chief nurse Claire Seguin told The Times the hospital had hovered at around 200 vacancies, and is working to fill positions.
“The current housing crisis and retirements make it hard to keep up,” Seguin told the Times.
Seguin said the hospital has vacancies “across the board,” many of them important to its daily operations. In particular, the hospital was in need of staff like nurses, radiologists, and laboratory and surgical technicians.
“We are currently filling these critical vacancies with travel staff, but hope to move to permanent solutions,” she said, adding that the hospital could also use more environmental services, food and nutrition, and front desk staff members. “This is not a problem that’s isolated to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. The pandemic has exacerbated some of the chronic challenges in the U.S. health system, including a shortage of qualified employees and burnout.”
According to Seguin, over 230,000 healthcare providers in the U.S. left the profession during the first two years of the pandemic alone.
Seguin said the hospital implemented several initiatives to help recruit and retain staff. These included educational and training programs on the Island, student loan forgiveness programs, adjusting compensation and benefits, assisting with “housing solutions” for employees relocating to the Island, and collaborating with the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School health program to share career opportunities with students, among other efforts.
The hospital is also finding ways to find housing for its staff. In one partnership, the former Hanover House inn in Tisbury, purchased by Island Housing Trust, was renovated and opened in 2019 to provide 12 rooms and three “efficiency apartments” for hospital employees to rent. Also, the Navigator Homes skilled nursing facility is under development, which will provide 48 workforce housing units for staff of the hospital and the nursing facility.
When asked whether the lack of workers has impacted hospital services or patient access to primary care doctors, Seguin said critical medical roles have been backfilled through travel staff.
“We continue to offer all of our clinical services, though our staff is stretched at times,” Seguin said. However, she said the hospital has hired more primary care providers, whose services Islanders can apply for on the hospital website, and a new multilingual patient access manager.
Another place looking to increase staff is Hospice and Palliative Care of Martha’s Vineyard, although not to the same level as the hospital. After becoming Medicare-certified, Hospice has been looking to expand its capabilities to provide care for patients. That will include adding new staff.
Hospice executive director Cathy Wozniak and the Rev. Sharon Eckhardt, president of the hospice’s board of directors, sat down with The Times to talk about the organization’s needs.
The group is looking to hire a couple more nurses. While there have been interested applicants, housing has been a prohibitive factor. Wozniak said they’ve been looking for nurses for over a year.
“There’s so many people who are leaving or not coming here because of the housing and the costs,” Wozniak said. “And there’s a major nursing shortage throughout the country.”
To deal with this, Wozniak said Hospice has been looking for a property to purchase so they can provide their employees with housing.
“We’re not a huge organization,” she said. “We’re in need of affordable, year-round housing, so we’re becoming landlords.”
Wozniak said this is “new territory” for them. Although finding a rental unit at a reasonable price was the initial option, acquiring a property is the route being considered, since rent becomes “astronomically” high during the summer months on the Vineyard. (Hospice isn’t the only on-Island organization that recently acquired property for its workforce. Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse purchased the former 1720 House for $1.3 million in Tisbury to house its staff and actors.)
Eckhardt said it’s important to have staff who live on the Island because of the 24/7 care they provide. Even if a nurse worked in a hybrid capacity, they need staff to be on call. “We need people to be here,” Echhardt said.
The hospice is also looking to acquire a car, with hopes someone could donate a used one. “If we hire someone who does some remote work for us, which they could do, but they need to be here to see patients, then we need to provide a car,” Wozniak said.
Wozniak said while a traveling nurse is an option, the hospice is working to have a nurse on the staff for a longer term. She also said the hospice is seeing whether there would be any Island organizations who would be willing to work with the hospice to alleviate these needs, such as a rental unit that does not spike in cost during the summer. Wozniak said the hospice is in a “growth mode,” and is planning to get more volunteers and continue fundraising efforts.
“I think it was difficult for staff during the pandemic, because we’re hands-on care, going into people’s homes,” Eckhardt added.
Although every medical center was hit by the pandemic, not all of them are experiencing the same staffing needs. Vineyard Medical Care office manager Anna Jacobs said they too are continuing to provide service with the current staff, although it is looking to expand for the summer season. Vineyard Medical Care is a medical center that cares for minor illnesses.
“We have always sought and succeeded with hiring locally,” she said, adding there have been some Cape Cod commuters.
But housing is still a factor limiting applicant numbers, according to Jacobs, although Vineyard Medical Care had the fortune of the housing shortage not impacting current staff members.
Although the pandemic impacted how staff workloads and schedules were organized, such as implementing remote work or not hiring summer staff, Jacobs said she did not think Vineyard Medical Care was affected the same way as other places. There have been times when work could be overwhelming, but turnover rates remained low.
Jacobs also said there were “many more applicants all around” before the pandemic, especially registered nurses and medical assistants. “It appears that now licensed [or] certified clinical applicants are quite rare,” she said.