For almost two years, the relentless battle to fight COVID-19 has strained our healthcare workforce and healthcare system like never before.
Just before the holidays, we had tallied more than 51 million total cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and more than 800,000 deaths. Throughout the pandemic, hospitals and health systems and their teams have stood strong on the front lines.
However, stress, trauma, burnout and behavioral health disorders among our caregivers are at historic levels. A 2021 survey found almost 60% of healthcare workers reported impacts on their mental health during the COVID-19 response.
Our nation simply does not have enough clinicians to care for patients today and not enough are in the training pipeline for the future. Further, the health and well-being of doctors, nurses and all healthcare workers is on an unsustainable path.
Workforce shortages have a direct impact on patient care. While hospitals always prioritize critical services like emergency departments and intensive-care units, patients may experience longer wait times to receive care. These delays could lead to additional emergencies or medical complications.
The overwhelming challenge of sustaining the healthcare workforce predates the pandemic. America will face a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians by 2033 and will need to hire at least 200,000 nurses per year to meet the increased demand and to replace retiring nurses.
There also are critical shortages of allied health and behavioral health professionals, especially in historically marginalized rural and urban communities. A recent analysis shows there will be a shortage of up to 3.2 million healthcare workers by 2026.
These shortages combined with an aging population, a rise in chronic diseases and increased behavioral health conditions all contribute to a national emergency that demands immediate attention from healthcare leaders and policymakers at every level of government.
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Leaders at America’s hospitals and health systems are committed to supporting our workforce as they are our most precious resource. For example, Providence—a health system that serves seven Western states—has been offering many workforce programs and services to support its caregivers, including tuition reimbursement and other training benefits, referral and retention bonuses and free behavioral healthcare.
Hospitals across the country have engaged in similar efforts, and the American Health Association has been sharing resources to promote well-being and resiliency. This includes working with our hospitals to identify new care models that improve care for our patients and enhance the work environment for our teams. But there is much more we can do—working with Congress, the Biden administration and other partners—to address the urgent needs of our workforce, prepare them for tomorrow and build a pipeline for the future.
Some of these efforts should include:
- Enact the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act. Named for a physician who led the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital and died by suicide in 2020, this legislation would authorize grants to create programs that offer well-being and behavioral health services for healthcare workers.
- Increase regulatory scrutiny of nurse staffing agency prices during the pandemic. There are numerous examples of price gouging by nurse staffing agencies that are charging hospitals exorbitant prices for travel nurses, taking advantage of the need for nurses to pad the agencies’ bottom lines.
- Lift the cap on Medicare-funded physician residencies, boost support for nursing schools and faculty, provide scholarships and loan repayment for certain providers, and expedite visas for all foreign highly trained healthcare personnel.
- Support efforts to bolster nursing faculty needs to ensure hospitals have the nurses they need in the future. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, nursing schools turned away over 80,000 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate programs in 2019 alone due to an insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, clinical preceptors and budget constraints.
- Support state efforts to expand scope of practice laws allowing healthcare professionals to practice at the top of their licenses.
- Stop health insurers’ burdensome practices that take caregivers away from the bedside and increase provider burnout.
Hospitals and health systems recognize that the people who work in their organizations are truly the heart of healthcare and we will continue to fight for the policies, resources and support they need to ensure access to care in our communities today and for years to come.