Lack of Healthcare Professionals Leading to Rise in Professional Liability and Workers' Comp Claims

Posted in Legal Alerts on October 21, 2022

The nationwide labor shortage is changing how a wide range of services are provided throughout the country. It is growing increasingly difficult to find adequate staff in both skilled and unskilled professions. Adding fuel to the fire, COVID-19 has changed the workforce in many ways. Some employees are no longer able to work because of the symptoms of long-haul COVID, while others have left the workforce altogether. One particular area where the labor shortage has caused a serious impact is the healthcare field.

Inadequate Staffing Is Directly Correlated to Legal Risks

In general, healthcare staffing shortages are increasing legal risks for facilities across the country. There is often a direct correlation between staffing levels and professional liability claims against healthcare providers and facilities. Without adequate staff, nurses may attempt to take action on their own or without enough help, such as when lifting a patient. They may be more likely to injure a patient because they simply do not have the necessary help to do their job. Even with improvements in technology, the healthcare industry is still labor-intensive. There are no ways around the critical tasks that nurses perform, including their direct patient care. They are on the front lines every day, monitoring patients and responding to their minute-to-minute needs. Fewer nurses mean large potential gaps in critical care and services patients need.

Understaffing Leads to Carelessness and Burnout

In addition, stress from being understaffed can also lead to burnout. Healthcare professionals under pressure may focus less on their jobs, impacting the quality of care. Even though there are extenuating factors that could theoretically excuse mistakes made by professionals under pressure, hospitals could still potentially be liable for negligence in a lawsuit.

Although the healthcare industry is not alone in struggling with staffing shortages, it may be one of the industries most directly affected. While other industries may simply not be able to produce goods without enough employees, the need for healthcare services does not decrease or end just because the number of available workers has decreased. When a hospital cannot adequately serve its patients, there are direct effects on people's lives and resulting legal liability.

Inadequate Staffing Increases Risks of Workplace Injury

Another area that may be impacted by the staffing crisis in healthcare is workers’ compensation claims among healthcare workers themselves. In the 1990s, Congress tasked a committee with assessing the effect of staffing levels on stress in the healthcare industry. This committee was asked to study the numerous risks that nurses encountered in the workplace. At the time, the rate of workplace injury in the healthcare field was escalating dramatically.

Surprisingly, the committee found that workers in the healthcare field had the highest rate of injury from overexertion in all of private industry. The study also found that healthcare workers had a high incidence of same-level falls.

COVID-19 Has Exacerbated Staffing Shortages

The situation has not improved any in the nearly three decades since the study results were released. In fact, stresses on nurses have only increased, especially since the start of COVID-19. One 2020 study found that nurses and nursing assistants comprise approximately 15% of all workers’ compensation claims.

With fewer people to shoulder the load, existing workers may be more likely to become injured in one of several ways. For example, healthcare workers may suffer repetitive strain injuries because they are doing more work. Others may be prone to emotional distress and other psychological issues that come from overwork. These are also considered work-related injuries for purposes of workers’ compensation claims.

At the same time, a nurse may injure themselves through overexertion. When pressed for time, a nurse could undertake a task themselves rather than waiting for help that may not come. Not only may nurses not be able to focus on what they are doing, they may also be exerting themselves when they should be resting. The result is an increase in workplace-related injuries.

Stressed Nurses Can Suffer Psychiatric Injuries

The current situation could also lead to psychiatric injuries. Aggravated patients and their families may engage in nurse bullying, which could cause emotional distress among nurses. Not only are some patients verbally aggressive towards staff, but some have also physically assaulted nurses on the job. Nurses could suffer short- and long-term trauma that could render them unable to work. In addition, the extreme stress from being overworked in a difficult environment may also result in emotional distress. There has been a rise in these claims in the wake of COVID-19.

Staffing shortages are a self-reinforcing cycle, as things get worse the longer they persist. Existing nurses may get both injured and stressed and decide to leave the profession entirely. Others might switch jobs in search of a paycheck that appropriately compensates them for the extra work they are doing. Hospitals are left to compete with each other for talent in more extreme ways, such as raising compensation packages and looking to improve work-life balance.

The well-publicized strain on doctors and nurses during COVID-19 has not helped to alleviate staffing shortages that already existed before the pandemic. Some healthcare professionals who were stricken with COVID have not been able to return to the workforce because of the persistent symptoms of long-haul COVID. These professionals have filed workers’ compensation and/or disability claims to pay their necessary expenses until they are able to return to the workforce—if they are able to return at all.

In the meantime, insurance companies are likely to see continuing increases in claims that arise from their contractual relationships with healthcare facilities. Until hospitals are able to fix their staffing issues—which appears unlikely for the time being—there could be a steady stream of legal claims filed against them that insurance companies will need to process, defend, and potentially pay.