November 26, 2022

Pediatric hospital leaders are now confronting unprecedented challenges that have emerged in the aftermath of the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among them are a youth mental health crisis and large-scale staffing shortages leaving hospitals depleted of their most vital resource.

The pandemic may not have been the genesis for these issues, but its shock waves exacerbated many of them to a state of urgency. Our actions, both today and in the future, are critical in order to make lasting and effective change.

Just last year, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory to highlight the dire need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis, with 1 in 5 children having a mental health disorder and 15 million in need of mental health services. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among kids ages 10 to 14. Many children have spent their formative years under the pandemic’s restrictions, unable to benefit from the routines of social life and education. This uncertainty and stress during key developmental years have left them more susceptible to anxiety and depression.

As a result, more than 53% of parents have mental health concerns for their children; pediatric hospitals are overwhelmed with the volume of behavioral health cases entering their emergency departments; and providers are struggling to connect patients and families with resources that can support them through a longer-term care journey.

At Children’s Mercy Kansas City, we are addressing this crisis by accelerating a comprehensive behavioral health strategic plan. It includes resources dedicated to complementing the region’s primary care providers to fill gaps in mental, behavioral and specialty services, and creating a greater capacity to serve children requiring more complex mental health services. Children’s Mercy social workers have been embedded into local schools to provide crisis intervention, behavioral support and advocacy. In addition, parents and caregivers have access to our “Prepped and Ready” video series, which outlines steps to take before a crisis develops, including safe storage practices for firearms and medications, and other suicide prevention resources. Together with our community and partner organizations, we are building a system of care that supports the strength and resilience of children and families.

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That also includes expanding the number of behavioral health providers in clinics to screen for eating disorders, anxiety and depression, while empowering teachers and pediatricians with evidenced-based skills that can be implemented in the classroom or medical practice to improve student well-being.

Of course, it’s not only the mental health of our children that is in jeopardy. The pandemic has left us facing continued clinician burnout, adding to ongoing staffing depletion within our hospitals and health systems. The burnout rate for nurses and physicians in the last two years has resulted in significant staffing shortages, with at least one-third of pediatricians experiencing burnout symptoms and a predicted shortage of 200,000 to 450,000 nurses by 2025, according to a recent McKinsey study.

Further complicating this workforce hardship is the current surge in respiratory viruses, such as RSV among children, resulting in significant and sometimes unprecedented increases in inpatient volumes, long wait times in EDs and limited appointment availability in clinics.

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