Solving this problem will require a multi-pronged approach that includes recruitment, technology, and help from lawmakers.

By Charlie Lougheed 

MedCity News published on June 14, 2024

Healthcare is humans. A hospital is merely a building without physicians, nurses, cleaning teams, food service workers, volunteers, and everyone else who serves the patients inside. This industry of people makes up almost 20% of the United States economy, so when there is a people problem with healthcare, there is also an economic problem within the country. And all signs are pointing to the current workforce shortages becoming more problematic over the next decade. Some predictions anticipate a physician shortage of upwards of 140,000 by 2036. Meanwhile, a recent report from the US Chamber notes that by 2030, we can expect 42 of the 50 states to have a nursing shortage, a challenge many states are already experiencing. There’s no on-off switch to fix this problem, no way to simply create more clinicians. Solving this problem will require a multi-pronged approach that includes recruitment, technology, and help from lawmakers.

Legislation

Congress isn’t blind to the grim predictions. Senator Tim Kaine recently introduced a bill called the “Welcome Back to the Health Care Workforce Act.” The proposed legislation aims to create easier pathways to employment for the approximately 270,000 immigrants in the United States with health-related degrees who are unemployed or underemployed. It’s a bold move, knowing that any legislation that touches on immigration is sure to be a lightning rod for debate. But we are in an all-hands-on-deck situation, and any pathway to alleviate the pressures our health systems are experiencing must be given serious and thoughtful consideration.  

To further clear this path, continued efforts should be made to alleviate the financial burden and prohibitive costs associated with healthcare-related education expenses. The costs range between $35-65K to receive a BSN in the U.S., while the costs associated with earning the initials “M.D.” soar above $220,000. As a country, if we’re willing to pay for the college education of those who serve in the military, we should equally commit ourselves to further developing grants and scholarships and explore legislative paths to fund the education of the people on the front lines of our emergency rooms, pediatrician offices, and nursing homes – regardless of their country of origin.

Recruitment

We can’t legislate our way out of the problem. Better, more impactful recruitment practices are absolutely essential. And I’m not talking about more LinkedIn messages from headhunters. We need a complete re-do to the approach. Think of the armed services. Remember those “Be all you can be” and “The few, the proud, the Marines” commercials? They were often shown at a welcoming career fair booth, where uniformed military members handed out glossy brochures and told stories of heroism. These tactics motivated young men and women to serve, and that framework is one that should be considered in healthcare. The U.S. healthcare system must find ways to excite young minds in high school and demonstrate opportunities that are both rewarding and attainable.

Workforce environment

Healthcare workers — from ER doctors to food service employees — have numerous competitive career opportunities. Whether it’s a competing health system or the Amazon warehouse the next town over, hospitals must prioritize a safe, supportive working environment to retain staff combating burnout at an alarming rate. 

As a society, we pin increased rates of burnout and clinician attrition to the pandemic, but the reality is that Covid-19 only exacerbated long-standing underlying causes. To address these issues, health systems must develop and implement policies, programs, and solutions that not only address and help prevent burnout but also educate staff to identify warning signs of burnout among their peers. 

Health systems should seek counsel from clinicians and build out perks accordingly. While encouraging paid leave, sick leave, and family leave, flexible and autonomous scheduling, and zero-tolerance policies to combat racism and discrimination sounds great in theory, these initiatives only attract and retain staff when implemented heartfeltly across the organization.

Additionally, these critical team members must have a seat at the table when discussing new policies and processes long before implementation. Whether it’s implementing a peer-to-peer mental health support group or introducing a new technology designed to streamline administrative workflows, clinician buy-in is no longer a nice to have.

Tech

Artificial intelligence is the fix for seemingly everything, but it will also play a role in addressing workforce shortages. By no means am I making any suggestions that AI will take the role of clinicians or the supporting healthcare staff. Where this high-powered computing will be most effective is crunching vast amounts of data to allow for better human decision-making. There are petabytes of data in healthcare, a chunk of which focuses on providers alone. Artificial intelligence can decipher trends and provide recommendations for health system executives to best use their workforce, even with shortages.

Useful tech goes beyond AI. There are forms of workforce intelligence that can simplify inefficiencies, like identifying and prioritizing hiring needs across a health system based on trending patient data. Or credentialing clinicians, a painfully slow process, taking weeks to months to complete. Introducing digital solutions to what is often done via fax machine will get more clinicians, whether in permanent roles or locums, to the patient’s bedside faster.  

Conclusion

The workforce of the largest industry in the largest economy is drowning. It needs a lifeline. It needs 10 lifelines. Demand for care is rising, and the current amount of clinicians will not satisfy that demand. There will be burnout. Some of the best, most compassionate people will be pushed to the brink and find other work. Healthcare will need a plan and help to keep this workforce afloat. It will need creative and nonpartisan solutions. And while it’s easy to focus on the money of this $4.5 trillion industry, it’s the quality of care that is at risk. To take care of our collective well-being in the future, we need to take care of our current clinical workforce now.

Photo credit: Chinnapong, Getty Images

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