Henry Ford Health System to add Filipino nurses to fill shortages, CEO says

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Amid staffing shortages as the coronavirus pandemic continues to grip Michigan, Henry Ford Health System plans to add nurses from overseas, its president and CEO said Tuesday.

"We are working on a large swath of folks coming in the first quarter of next year to be able to provide service by summer, hopefully, once we get through the training and immigration process," Wright Lassiter III told a panel during the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Afterward, Lassiter said the new nurses would come primarily from the Republic of the Philippines, where proficiency in the English language is high and nursing standards are similar to those in the United States. While he could not put a precise number on those targeted, Lassiter said he expected it to be in the low hundreds.

He said the plan has been in the works for about 30 days, and depends on the "not uncomplicated" immigration and onboarding processes.

The emergency entrance at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital on March 2, 2021. Amid staffing shortages as the coronavirus pandemic continues to grip Michigan, Henry Ford Health System is exploring adding nurses from overseas, its president and CEO said Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.

Overall, the health system is seeing "an extreme challenge" in filling roles, and not just in nursing, he said during the event.

Wright Lassiter III is the president and CEO of Henry Ford Health System.

Lassiter's remarks came a week after Henry Ford announced it had trimmed 120 beds from five hospitals due to staffing shortages.

Michigan hospitals have grappled with fewer nurses as well as other positions, including lab technicians, medical assistants, housekeepers and pharmacists. 

Nationally, demand for intensive care and emergency nurses increased 186% during the last year, according to a study by health care hiring firm Incredible Health. 

Michigan Health and Hospital Association spokesman John Karasinski last week estimated 80% of nursing leaders nationwide have reported higher nurse turnover due to the pandemic.

During a panel Tuesday afternoon at the conference on Mackinac Island titled "How COVID-19 Changed the Business Landscape," Lassiter said his hospital system has faced a "significant shortage" in clinical and technical roles.

In recent months, "we've been anywhere from 75 to 125 beds that we have not staffed because we were concerned about our clinical staffing models," he said. "...That will continue frankly for the foreseeable future because we just don’t have enough folks coming into the pipeline."

Lassiter attributed the shrinking ranks to pandemic-related burnout leading some personnel to opt for early retirement.

"In some cases, we have folks who love what they do in health care saying 'I just cannot go through this again.'"

Henry Ford also once typically received about 10,000 applicants a year for positions including housekeepers, transporters and valet workers, but "that pipeline is down 50% since pre-pandemic," Lassiter said.

It's also been difficult finding replacements in the hospital system's call centers, he added.

Lassiter noted the surging COVID-19 cases coupled with jobs in other fields luring staffers away could present a long-term issue.

"Our health care industry, I imagine, for at least the next couple years, will be extremely constrained from a health care supply perspective," he said.

The Detroit News reported earlier this month that the Michigan Health and Hospital Association and Sparrow Health System in the Lansing area are asking legislators to ease the state’s licensing requirements so they can hire more international nurses to boost staffing numbers.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.