Shortages in the Healthcare Industry: The Need for More Leaders, Educators, and Skilled Workers
Over the last few years, healthcare personnel at all levels of the industry have begun leaving the workforce due to facing extreme burnout.
Around 1 in 5 healthcare workers have left their roles since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Eighteen percent of healthcare staff at all levels have quit since early in 2020, while another 12 percent were let go, according to survey research by Morning Consult.
The industry was already headed for a shortage of workers because of the large population of baby boomers needing care today and for years to come, and not enough workers with the advanced education to fill many roles in healthcare, including physicians, healthcare administrators and managers, nurse practitioners and nurse educators. But it’s not only highly educated roles that were headed toward a decrease in ranks: important roles such as home health aids, licensed practical nurses, and medical assistants were also likely to shorten the numbers needed to meet healthcare needs in just a few years.
The effect of COVID-19 on everything from hospital funding to overwhelm of patient volume has rapidly sped up the trend of short staffing in the healthcare arena.
Many of those working in healthcare were burned out before the pandemic even began – a whopping percentage of between 35 and 54 percent of doctors and nurses were considered burnt out, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
For some, healthcare employers themselves complicated the challenge of the pandemic, with lower salaries, longer or more shifts, and even harder-to-get time off. Something as simple as not having enough personal protective equipment (PPE) became part of the multi-faceted reasons to consider leaving.
Why is There a Shortage in the Healthcare Industry?
Along with the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has caused healthcare staff of all ages and education levels to step away from the workplace, there are a whole convergence of factors that have been layering over time to result in a lack of enough healthcare workers both now and in the future.
The Baby Boomer generation, those born from 1946 to 1964, was larger than the generations that had come before it. The oldest among them are now approaching their 80s and the youngest among them are just on the cusp of retirement. In fact, the ‘over 65’ population is expected to increase by 48 percent in the next decade.
Simultaneously, our technology explosion over the past several decades has coincided with their aging, creating the outcome of many more people living longer (decades longer) with chronic health conditions, rather than succumbing earlier to illnesses or being unable to recover from something sudden and major.
Millions more people living longer with more dependency on the healthcare system has created a large and growing need for healthcare professionals – one that the U.S. may not be able to meet on an ongoing basis.
Another layer of that same timing is that many physicians themselves are Baby Boomers. In that same ten years, America will be facing a shortage of around 122,000 physicians, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges. And that’s only physicians. Nursing has long been a major career field in the United States, and it’s estimated that of the one million registered nurses over the age of 50, almost 30 percent of them will reach retirement in the next 15 years.
In What Fields are the Shortages Most Present?
The healthcare industry is made up of many layers of experience, expertise, and different skill sets. There are educators bringing the next generation into the workforce and helping professionals take their talents to the next level. There are nurses on every hospital floor, in every health center, in every provider’s office. There are medical assistants, hospital and healthcare system administrators, pharmacists, surgical specialists, and so many more that help us when something is wrong with our bodies. In many of these specialties affecting huge swaths of the healthcare industry’s workforce, there are shortages now and they are projected to grow.
Making up the largest part of the healthcare workforce, nurses are a critical piece of the healthcare sector.
Nursing shortages occur for many reasons:
- Lack of educators
- High turnover
- Increased use of healthcare by an aging population
- Many nurses approaching retirement age
- Balancing family, as many nurses are women and may leave or pause their careers when they have a family
- Hostility toward nurses in the healthcare setting
Even something as simple as the workplace culture can make a difference in nurses staying in their roles.
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) notes that it’s likely the U.S. will need more than 200,000 new nurses each year for the next five years just to replace retiring nurses.
One of the widest gaps in the physician field is and will continue to be primary care physicians or those working in family medicine. These doctors make up the backbone of local healthcare, often seeing patients before sending them on to further specialists if needed.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the primary care physician shortage could grow to more than 50,000. This can be a particular problem for rural areas where it’s less likely to have other options if your local doctor retires or is no longer available. It’s also a challenge in low-access urban areas with vulnerable populations.
Specialty fields will also be affected, particularly as their own retirement age begins to decrease their ranks.
The main reasons for physician shortages now and in the coming years include:
- Burnout from COVID-19 care
- Aging population increase in healthcare needs
- Pay levels of specialties vs. general practitioners
- Changes in healthcare business models mean fewer independent practitioner offices
There won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to this challenge, but rather, a concerted, strategic effort over time.
Part of the problem is keeping the pipeline filling roles left open by those who have stepped away from their healthcare careers because of retirement or burnout.
Last school year, nursing schools throughout the country turned away more than 80,000 qualified applicants from both baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs from a lack of faculty, space, budget, and clinical sites. Most respondents to a survey from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing noted faculty shortage as their no. 1 reason. Schools noted both the inability to fill vacant faculty positions and the gap of not being able to create new faculty roles to meet demand.
Reasons for this gap include in available educators include:
- Higher compensation in other healthcare settings, particular in the private sector and in clinical roles
- Not enough enrollment in recent and current years in advanced degree programs to create qualified faculty
- Retirement age of educators
It’s a problem that seems to fold in on itself: not enough educators can’t prepare students for needed careers and students turned away can’t help fill the healthcare worker shortages.
As healthcare systems struggled during the past few years to keep operations and morale strong, there has also been an increase in losing healthcare administrators.
This, layered with the need for more healthcare operators and services than ever before as Baby Boomers age, has created a need for more healthcare administrators. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the role of management level staff in healthcare is likely to grow by 23 percent in the near future.
The roles demand intensive knowledge of business, operations, team management, and patient care. Often earning an MBA is a solid first step toward becoming a healthcare administrator.
For those who work in human resources, gaining knowledge on how to navigate all the facets of these shortages – workplace environment, education, alternative solutions, funding, etc. will be key. An MBA in Human Resources can help.
What’s Next for the Healthcare Industry?
This multi-layered problem can seem overwhelming to think about. But there are many ways to help address the needs of our healthcare system.
Many healthcare organizations may find it valuable to begin hiring by advertising nationally, pulling in staff from other areas to help address their shortages.
Shifting educational opportunities and training to be virtual may help address both faculty shortages and encourage more participation in those exploring healthcare careers.
Supporting educational initiatives in many ways can also help – more regional businesses focusing on scholarships into medical programs, more funding from the state and federal level to help build the programs themselves and create more access to them, creating stronger connections between clinical practices and educational institutions – these can all help move the needle.
Some restructuring is likely to naturally occur in the industry, including greater reliance on telehealth as well as a stronger reliance on community-based care. Ongoing education of Baby Boomers in particular to steer them toward preventative care and smart health choices may lessen the burden on the healthcare system.
Shaping new and revised regulations and best practices within the industry itself – particularly by giving healthcare workers a voice in how they think patient care can be improved while meeting the broad needs of the patient population – may also be a road to success. Shifting nurse-to-patient ratios, listening to healthcare professionals when making policies, and updating operations can all begin to address this situation.
Policymakers, regional economic development leaders, existing healthcare systems, and more are all focused on the increasing need for healthcare staff throughout the U.S. Education can help. An MBA ensures you have the skills to thrive in a variety of workplaces, including healthcare.
If you are interested in an advanced degree to step into a readily available role in an administrative and policymaker position in healthcare, check out our online programs.
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