Sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis

Last winter, a sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis in a Chicago suburb faced a critical shortage of nurses, leaving psychiatric patients with Covid waiting for beds for a full day. To exacerbate the situation, a lone aide was responsible for assisting 32 infected patients. The distressing conditions prompted nurses to unite and file formal complaints daily for over a month. A similar crisis unfolded about 300 miles away in a hospital outside Flint, Mich., where chronic understaffing resulted in patients being neglected, even lying in dried feces. To make matters worse, nursing assistants were replaced by robots for mentally impaired patients. Astonishingly, both hospitals were owned by Ascension, one of the nation’s largest health systems.

Sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis

sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis
sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis

Ascension, a nonprofit organization with nearly $18 billion in cash reserves, had been gradually reducing staffing levels in pursuit of improved profitability. While the hospital industry blamed the Covid pandemic, staff burnout, and tight labor markets for acute staff shortages, the groundwork for this labor crisis had been laid long before the arrival of the coronavirus. However, investigations revealed that large nonprofit hospital chains had shifted away from their charitable missions.

In some instances, nonprofit hospital chains prioritized cost-cutting measures, leading to layoffs of medical staff and long waits for crucial care. At other hospitals, the situation reached a breaking point, as exhausted nurses had to call 911 dispatchers for additional help to care for patients.

sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis
sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis

In 2010, Dr. Michael Schatzlein, a former executive of a for-profit hospital chain, was brought in to manage several Ascension hospitals in Tennessee and Alabama. The intention was to apply his experience in containing costs and improving efficiencies to a mission-driven organization.

Before the pandemic, Ascension hospitals began embracing cost-cutting innovations like robots to replace nurses’ aides who would traditionally care for patients requiring close supervision. This change left vulnerable patients, including those with dementia or psychiatric illnesses, with inadequate care, as nurses’ aides were only assigned to high-risk patients.

sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis
sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis

Ascension’s downsizing efforts were evident at Genesys, a 400-bed hospital in Michigan, which experienced layoffs in 2018 despite the chain reporting profits of $2.2 billion that year. The hiring freeze that followed resulted in a significant decline in permanent nursing staff. The situation was so dire that nurses felt they were working in a perpetual crisis, even after the pandemic subsided.

As of the present month, Genesys had numerous unfilled positions, particularly in critical units. This staffing shortage led to disturbing situations, such as patients lying in their own feces for prolonged periods due to lack of care. The nurse’s workload was overwhelming, and some expressed concerns that someone’s life could be at risk due to the inadequate staffing levels.

The exodus of nurses from hospitals has been fueled by various factors, with the Covid pandemic only intensifying the problem. The hospital industry’s focus on reducing costs and increasing efficiency had weakened the healthcare system, leaving it unprepared to handle the surge in critically ill patients during the pandemic.


The sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis, Ascension, exemplifies the devastating consequences of prioritizing cost-cutting measures over patient care. The shortage of nurses and other healthcare workers has left hospitals ill-equipped to handle critical situations, as evidenced by the distressing scenes of patients waiting for days, neglected in dried feces, and exposed to potential dangers due to inadequate supervision. While the hospital industry blames the Covid pandemic and staff burnout for the acute shortages, it is clear that sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis was exacerbated by years of downsizing and reducing staffing levels to improve profitability.

FAQ About Sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis


What is the current state of the staffing crisis in hospitals owned by Ascension?

As of now, the sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis owned by Ascension continues to be a pressing issue. The shortage of nurses and healthcare workers has had severe consequences on patient care, with hospitals facing challenges in providing adequate services and timely care for patients.

Why did the staffing crisis occur in Ascension hospitals?

The sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis in Ascension hospitals can be attributed to a combination of factors. One major contributing factor was the hospital chain’s efforts to reduce costs and improve profitability by cutting staff and streamlining operations. This approach left hospitals with lean staffing levels, making it difficult to cope with the surge in demand for healthcare services, especially during the Covid pandemic.

How has the staffing crisis affected patient care?

The sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis has had a detrimental impact on patient care. Overwhelmed nurses and other healthcare workers have reported situations where patients had to wait long hours for beds, leading to delays in receiving essential medical attention.

What can be done to address the sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis?

Addressing the sprawling hospital chain staffing crisis requires a comprehensive approach. Hospital management must prioritize patient care and well-being over financial gains, investing in adequate staffing and resources.

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