Before the COVID-19 pandemic even began, America began experiencing a health care worker shortage that’s only grown in the last two years. This supply and demand imbalance is expected to get worse unless something changes.
Aging Baby Boomers and Burn-Out
A major reason for this crisis is the record number of elderly people in America. This huge geriatric generation is experiencing ever-increasing medical needs. To make matters worse, the large number of health care workers in this age group are retiring in large numbers.
Becky Sawyer, executive vice president for Sentara Healthcare,
which employs 28,000 health care professionals in Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio, told CBN News the health care worker shortage is built-in to the country’s changing demographics.
“Health care has been experiencing a shortage of nurses and other health care workers for long before the pandemic,” she said, “We just expect that to intensify as baby boomers continue to age and as they continue to leave the workforce.”
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However, the health care worker shortage isn’t just about aging baby boomers. Even before the pandemic, many people left the industry before retirement age due to high burnout rates. The pandemic only deepened this trend. Nearly 20 percent of health care professionals left their job in the last two years.
Caitlin Krouse, DNP, an Indiana nurse practitioner, and health policy advocate, told CBN News that the pandemic created unprecedented stress levels for all health care workers, the relentless siege of COVID-19 patients has been particularly difficult for nurses, especially when their peers left the field because it caused those who remained to pick up the slack.
“The health care systems have been overrun, especially emergency rooms and the ICUs,” she said. “Where you’re taking care of people who are very sick from this pandemic and then being asked to take additional patients or work additional hours.
“It’s a lot of additional emotional burden for us to carry,” Krouse added.
The shortages run the gamut: lab technicians, aides, respiratory therapists, and more. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety held a hearing on the growing shortage of health care workers at which time lawmakers were told the U.S. needs 200,000 nurses per year to meet the increased need and America is facing a shortage of up to 124,000 doctors by 2034.
“Those numbers are scary,” said Dr. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, one of the hearing’s witnesses. “Because as you and I are all getting old, we will need care, and that care may not be there.”
In one effort to get more doctors into the field, medical schools are accepting more applicants. However, that’s only part of the solution, as there’s also a need to increase the number of physician residency positions. Residency is the period of required training after medical school but before doctors get their medical license and can practice on their own. Resident physicians train for three to seven years, depending on their chosen field of medicine.
The federal government covers the cost of training resident doctors for the most part. That allocation had remained largely frozen since 1997, which meant doctors were still not able to serve the public in high enough numbers.
“For a while there we built more medical schools without increasing the residency training capacity and there was a bottleneck,” Bruce Britton, M.D., Eastern Virginia Medical School professor of Family and Community Medicine told CBN News.
The bottleneck began to ease somewhat in December of 2020 when bipartisan congressional leaders added 1,000 new resident positions. Congress is now considering adding 14,000 more, some specifically targeted for rural areas because, after residency, doctors often remain in the same location.
“Roughly twenty, twenty-five percent of Americans live in rural America, but only ten percent of the physicians are in rural America,” said Dr. Britton.
Other incentives may alleviate the shortage of physicians and other health care professionals in rural areas.
“If you’re in under-served areas there are lots of loan forgiveness programs both through governments and states but also through hospital systems,” Britton noted.
Telehealth, one silver lining from the pandemic, allows people in rural areas to get the care they need from doctors and other health professionals in distant locations.
Ways to Train More Nurses
The nursing shortage might ease if restrictions regarding training were eased. Despite a national nursing shortage in the United States, over 80,000 qualified applications were not accepted at U.S. nursing schools in 2020, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
The reasons include enrollment caps, not enough full-time faculty, and a lack of clinical sites. To fix this and get more nurses into the field, some states are raising those caps, allowing part-time faculty to fill the gaps, and letting nursing students substitute clinical training with simulation hours.
Meanwhile, hospitals are doing all they can to keep the nurses and other health care professionals they currently employ.
“The five percent market increase and the benefits enhancements that we’ve just announced in the last few weeks are meant to ensure that we recognize our team members’ contributions and that we remain competitive in the markets we serve,” Sawyer said.