Over the past four years, occupancy rates of hospitals in Mississippi have increased

According to recent data collected by the federal government from March 2020 to April 2024, Mississippi hospitals are experiencing higher occupancy rates compared to four years ago.

In 2020, hospitals that had more than 250 licensed beds had an average annual occupancy rate of 73.1%, which increased to 80.7% in 2024. This represents a significant 7.6% increase in the number of staffed beds filled with patients over the four-year period.

High occupancy rates in hospitals can be attributed to a variety of factors, one of which is the shortage of healthcare workers. This shortage often restricts the number of beds that a hospital can open, leading to a higher occupancy rate.

Kim Hoover, interim president and CEO of the Mississippi Hospital Association, stated that their staffing levels have not yet recovered since COVID-19. She further added that there are some available beds, but they cannot be utilized due to the lack of staff.

According to her, the insufficiency of nurses is the main cause that restricts the availability of hospital beds.

According to a survey conducted by the Mississippi Hospital Association, only 37.2% of registered nurses in Mississippi are employed in hospital settings. Shockingly, the survey also revealed that there are currently 3,038 vacant hospital registered nurse (RN) positions statewide in 2022. This data was collected from responses received from 82% of Mississippi hospitals.

Registered nurse, Hoover, stated that heavy workloads, irregular working hours, and low pay are the primary reasons why nurses opt to work in other places.

According to her, a lack of staff can result in exhaustion and limit the care nurses can provide to their patients. “Being able to spend quality time with both the patient and their family is a challenge,” she said. “There are times when we miss out on certain opportunities.”

Hospitals are finding ways to address staffing challenges by providing attractive benefits such as sign-on bonuses, flexible hours, and pay incentives. Merit Health Central, for instance, has taken steps to ensure that their pay is competitive and has recently introduced a loan repayment program for their employees. According to Alicia Carpenter, the hospital’s marketing director, these measures have helped to improve their overall staffing situation.

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According to her, there has been a significant and measurable increase in nursing retention over the past year.

NSI Nursing Solutions Inc. has reported a 2% decrease in hospital turnover rates across the country from 2022 to 2023.

During that period, Delta Health System – The Medical Center in Greenville, Merit Health Central in Jackson, and Singing River Health System in Pascagoula experienced significant drops in the average number of staffed beds, with declines of over 30%.

In 2020, North Mississippi Medical Center, which holds the second spot for the largest hospital in the state with 640 licensed beds, had an average of 387 staffed beds. However, the hospital’s average staffed beds experienced a significant drop from 2021 to 2023, falling below 300 and now amounting to less than half of its licensed bed capacity.

By the start of 2024, the Tupelo hospital had regained its capacity and was averaging 345 beds in the first four months.

When asked for their input on this matter, North Mississippi Medical Center chose not to provide any comment. Similarly, Delta Health System – The Medical Center did not respond to the request for comment.

As of May 3, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is no longer mandating hospitals to report capacity and occupancy data, which was initially implemented to monitor COVID-19 pandemic statistics. However, hospitals still have the option to participate in voluntary reporting.

The closure of hospitals or reduction in patient services, as well as an aging population, can also have an impact on occupancy rates.

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An April 2024 study from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform found that 62% or 45 rural hospitals in the state have already suffered losses in patient services. The report also indicates that over half of Mississippi’s rural hospitals are in danger of shutting down.

According to Dan Woods, the senior director of emergency services and throughput at St. Dominic’s Hospital, when rural hospitals shut down or cut back on services, there is a surge in transfer volumes at large urban hospitals.

Every year, St. Dominic’s hospital receives an average of 4,000 to 5,000 patients who have been transferred from other medical facilities.

He expressed, “As soon as one of us faces any difficulty, we all come together and support them. We understand the weight of the burden and take it upon ourselves to share it.”

Each month, St. Dominic’s Comprehensive Stroke Center receives approximately 175 stroke patients who have been transferred from other hospitals. According to Wood, the center is well-equipped to handle such cases.

Wood stated that the number of patients seeking medical attention is massive and is only going to increase, particularly as rural hospitals face ongoing challenges.

According to Wood, the higher hospital occupancy rates in Mississippi can also be attributed to its aging population. This is because geriatric patients tend to have more comorbidities, such as hypertension, diabetes, or obesity, which require additional medical attention.

The number of older individuals in Mississippi is on the rise. Over the course of eleven years, from 2010 to 2021, there has been a significant 29.3% increase in adults aged 65 and above in the state.

According to Ashley Butsch, the public relations manager for Singing River Medical Center, the demand for nursing professionals is only going to increase due to the aging population. This means that the nursing shortage problem is not going away anytime soon and is likely to worsen.

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Wood predicts that there will be an increase in occupancy rates across the board.

According to Hoover, collaboration among hospitals could be the solution to the staffing and occupancy difficulties that hospitals in Mississippi are currently experiencing. She expressed hope that this approach would prove to be effective in addressing the challenges that the healthcare system is currently facing.

The development of a health information exchange platform, known as IntelliTrue, is underway. The platform aims to transmit real-time hospital data to facilities across the state. The program is expected to be launched before the spring of next year, according to Hoover.

At present, the Mississippi Department of Health receives occupancy data from hospitals only once a day. However, this data can rapidly become obsolete.

Hospital staff often face the arduous task of calling other healthcare facilities to arrange for patient transfers due to the lack of a statewide, regularly updated data hub.

Hoover expressed frustration with the common scenario of hospitals calling multiple people, numbering up to ten, only to inform them that no beds are available.

Hospitals will now have the ability to share real-time capacity information thanks to the new program.

According to Hoover, the new system won’t solve staffing shortages, but it will make it easier to transfer patients to medical centers with the space and resources to provide proper care.

Hoover emphasized the importance of caring for local residents in Mississippi. He stated that the ultimate aim is to ensure that patients can receive treatment within their community and state. “It’s better for us to care for our folks here in the state of Mississippi,” Hoover emphasized.

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