For the first time in nearly two decades, staffing shortages have replaced financial challenges as the top concern among healthcare CEOs, according to the American College of Healthcare Executives’ annual survey. With changes stemming from the pandemic and new career pathways and structures gaining traction, staffing shortages and labor costs have risen, causing a decline in operating cash flow for nonprofit hospitals and care facilities in the public healthcare system.

What’s driving these changes? Let’s focus on one specific, and arguably most undervalued, talent pool in the industry: nurses. This summer, in partnership with Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, Cross Country Healthcare conducted its second annual “Future of Nursing Survey.” Listening to healthcare professionals’ concerns enables us to tailor a solution that offers resolutions, or compromises at the very least, to help boost retention and acquisition.

While respondents’ passion for patient care remains, historical issues — low pay, stress and burnout — have been amplified, leading to an exodus from the modern industrial structure toward more diverse opportunities. So, where do we go from here?

Compensation. Nearly 86% of respondents noted that pay rates and compensation were their chief complaints. We owe it to nurses to facilitate an honest, top-to-bottom audit of their compensation packages. This is important not only for the many nurses working today but for nursing students preparing to enter the workforce.

Career paths. Nurse practitioners (APRNs), and physician assistants (PAs) for that matter, have assumed greater responsibilities over the past couple of years. These roles will continue to grow, and value-based care models will accelerate their need. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, APRNs increased 12% in the last year alone, while PAs are projected to grow 31% by 2030. What’s encouraging is that the supply of APRNs and PAs should meet our aging population’s demand for healthcare services.

Many healthcare systems will soon rely on PAs and APRNs not only for providing direct patient care but for training staff nurses and travel nurses as well. A structure to quickly assimilate new healthcare staff will be vital to creating a cohesive, streamlined integration process focusing on the highest level of patient care.

Landscape changes. Emerging technologies, new staffing pathways and the threat of future strains on the existing healthcare systems will continue to transform the healthcare landscape, so preparing for what’s next should be a top-line operational focus for all healthcare systems and facilities. New technologies and talent pipelines have shifted the availability of preparedness needed to meet the growing demand for the nation’s healthcare system. We can anticipate the need by looking at our aging population and the rise of chronic diseases, many of which will require hospitalization or long-term care. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, our nation’s growing population will increase demand for healthcare practitioners by 42% by 2034. Future staffing will target these roles to improve patient care services and to fill in during potential unexpected gaps in staffing.

Back to basics. The future of healthcare staffing relies on several factors. The first is to look at current acquisition and retention programs and adjust to meet today’s and tomorrow’s demands. HR teams must listen to the existing workforce sentiment when reimagining their methods employed to boost team morale and satisfaction. In fact, our survey showed that morale and mental health were a significant factor for nurses leaving the profession.

Second, engaging with nurses will help identify gaps that can be addressed to fill standard demands while helping create contingency plans for the rapid deployment of support staff when needed. Lastly, exploring clinical workflow technology and making investments to assist HR will help optimize patient care and access while also reducing operational costs.

Pinpointing the future of nurse staffing doesn’t require a crystal ball, but it does require a thoughtful and honest assessment of the past. When it comes to providing the best healthcare services possible and enriching the clinical care of patients, we can all agree there is work to be done concerning staffing. There is equal agreement that we can work together to succeed for our nation’s healthcare providers and hospital systems.