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Innovative Solutions to the Healthcare Worker Shortage Crisis
Cognitive Research

Innovative Solutions to the Healthcare Worker Shortage Crisis

Published: 25/06/2024

Written by: Mike Battista

A look at the numbers presents a stark picture of the crisis at hand. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), there will be a shortage of 86,000 primary care physicians in the United States by 2036, and navigating America’s healthcare system is becoming increasingly challenging. This is not a challenge that’s set to vanish overnight, and the shortage is showing signs of slowing, but there’s still a significant gap to close.

The shortage of healthcare professionals spans across various roles, from nurses and physicians to allied health roles, underscoring the breadth of the workforce problem. This issue is not limited to the United States but all of North America, affecting not only large healthcare networks but also privately owned clinics. This shortage has an impact on the delivery of healthcare services, from bustling urban hospitals to small rural practices. In both settings, the lack of healthcare workers can lead to increased wait times for patients, overworked staff, and a decrease in the overall quality of care.

Why is our healthcare system facing a critical worker shortage, and what can be done to resolve it? This challenge, driven by an aging population, burnout among healthcare workers, COVID-related burnout, and educational bottlenecks, is jeopardizing patient care and testing the resilience of health services. 

This article presents an in-depth look at the causes of the healthcare worker shortage and explores actionable solutions to ensure a sustainable healthcare workforce.

The Growing Crisis: Understanding the Health Workforce Shortage

Understanding the healthcare worker shortage involves more than just recognizing the issue; it’s about dissecting the contributing factors. 

Some of those factors include:

  • An aging population: As reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of individuals aged 65 and over is projected to nearly double by 2050. An AAMC study supports the notion that an increasingly older population may result in an increase in the demand of physicians and cause a greater shortage of physicians.
  • Burnout among physicians: A survey study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings reported that U.S. physicians are experiencing more burnout, less professional satisfaction, and worsened work-life balance.
  • A retiring workforce: According to data published by the AAMC, over one third of active physicians will be 65 or older in the next decade.
  • Lack of access to care in rural areas: The Department of Veterans Affairs found that less than 12% of physicians in the US practice in rural areas, despite around 20% of the population living in rural communities. Another systematic review also provides a look at the uneven distribution of healthcare providers across rural areas.
  • Financial funding challenges: Funding is critical for the sustainability of healthcare services. Adequate funding is needed for education and training programs to increase the supply of nurses, personal support workers, and other healthcare professionals, according to a study on the subject.
  • Shortage of mental health and cognitive care providers: According to American Psychiatry Association (APA), the psychiatrist workforce is projected to contract through 2024, reaching a low of 38,821, which translates to a shortage of between 14,280 and 31,091 psychiatrists. 

To effectively address these challenges, the health system must actively engage in partnerships with educational institutions and providers to create targeted education programs, establish equity partnerships, and close the talent gap in healthcare. Later in this article, we’ll dive deeper into some strategies for addressing the shortage.

Areas of Healthcare Most Impacted by Workers Shortages

Two areas of healthcare that are significantly impacted by worker shortages are primary care and nursing. According to the AAMC, the United States will see a shortage of up to 86,000 physicians by 2036. Primary care physicians are often the first point of contact for patients seeking medical attention, playing a crucial role in preventive care, chronic disease management, and coordinating patient care across specialists. 

Though, it’s not all bad news, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Projections 2021-2031 is expecting a 6% growth in the nursing profession over the next decade. 

Impacts on Patient Experience

The healthcare worker shortage is a pressing issue that affects the delivery of medical services worldwide, with significant implications for patient care and the sustainability of health systems.

Medical errors. We’ve already explored how high demands and stress of the healthcare profession can lead to burnout among healthcare workers, which is exacerbated by staffing shortages. In addition, fatigue, burnout, and stress can lead to medical errors, as a 2023 study found.

Disrupted continuity of care. Staffing shortages can lead to disruptions in the continuity of patient care, which is vital for managing chronic conditions and providing effective treatment plans. According to research in BMC Primary Care, the disruption in continuity of care can lead to late diagnosis, inefficient treatment, and an incremental trend of disease development, ultimately increasing the burden of chronic disease.

Longer wait times. Inadequate staffing can result in longer wait times for patients, delaying necessary medical attention and potentially worsening health outcomes. CMA reports that in 2023, only 23% of patients were admitted to the hospital within eight hours, meeting the provincial target time. Average wait time for patients was 22 hours.

Longer referral times. Delayed referrals often mean delayed diagnoses and treatments, which can exacerbate health issues, allow conditions to progress to more severe stages, and reduce the chances of successful recovery. 

Reduced access to care. An article in the UBC Medical Journal found that marginalized populations—including those without shelter, low-income populations, the recently incarcerated, recent immigrants, Indigenous populations, and seniors—often face barriers in accessing appropriate healthcare services. These systemic challenges to health equity are only made more extreme by healthcare worker shortages. 

Preventive care. Healthcare worker shortages can cause populations' overall health to suffer, as preventive measures and early interventions may be less available. One study states that "receipt of preventive services is associated with a reduction in morbidity and mortality, most notably in the areas of cancer, chronic disease, infectious disease (immunizations), mental health, substance abuse, vision, and oral health." This study also suggests that interdisciplinary collaborations are needed to effectively provide health promotion, disease prevention, and patient education—which is only made possible by closing gaps in worker shortages.

Addressing the Shortage: Innovative Strategies and Solutions

Addressing the healthcare worker shortage crisis requires a multifaceted approach. Resolving this challenge also requires coordination on the part of individuals, healthcare practices, and policy-makers and legislators across various levels of government.

Some strategies and solutions we explore below include:

  • Expanding medical education opportunities
  • Prioritizing preventive care
  • Implementing supportive policies and legislation
  • Collecting reliable data

Further, one study (Human Resources for Health) proposes these potential solutions for reducing healthcare worker shortages:

  • Implementing team-based care delivery in order to care for an increasing number of insured and elderly patients. (Health Affairs)
  • Employing mid-level healthcare providers to support physicians and mitigate shortages. (Milbank Quarterly)
  • Employing foreign-trained doctors to supplement the physician workforce. Foreign-trained have long been an integral part of the US healthcare system, contributing substantially to primary care disciplines and providing care in underserved populations. (Journal of Osteopathic Medicine
  • Eliminating tuition to encourage people to pursue medical careers, such as the New York University School of Medicine announced.
  • Using technology and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms will shift the roles of physicians from a knowledge-based role into more of a skills-based role. (Journal of Digital Imaging

Additionally, international efforts like the Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030 by the World Health Organization (WHO), propose a strategy of policy interventions such as effective education, employment policies, optimized skill mix, task-sharing models, and rural incentives to build a sustainable health workforce.

Expanding Medical Education Opportunities

One key solution lies in expanding medical education opportunities, such as medical school programs. Notable efforts include The Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education (THCGME) program, which supports the training of residents in community-based settings in order to address the uneven distribution of healthcare providers. Furthermore, the American Medical Association is actively working on initiatives to shift current residency curriculum to better prepare physicians to help underserved populations.

Efforts are also being made to reduce the financial burden of medical student debt, which can encourage more doctors to work in underserved areas rather than seeking higher-paying jobs in urban settings. Programs like the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) offer scholarships and loan repayment to health professionals who commit to work in underserved communities. Expanding education opportunities is essential for developing a robust healthcare workforce capable of meeting future challenges.

Prioritizing Preventative Care

The significance of preventive care cannot be overstated in the context of the healthcare worker crisis. A study in Population Health Management found that a primary care model focused on positive physician-patient relationships and personalized preventive care achieved positive health care expenditure outcomes and improved health management within three years. Participants in this program also had fewer instances of emergency room and urgent care visits in addition to general healthcare cost savings, compared to other patients.

Community-based preventive care programs can improve health outcomes, particularly in underserved populations. By reducing the incidence of chronic diseases, these programs can lessen the demand for specialized healthcare professionals and decrease burnout. 

Policy and Legislation: Supporting the Healthcare Workforce

Legislative solutions also play a critical role in addressing the healthcare worker shortage. The Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2023, for instance, aims to lift the cap on residency programs, potentially easing the healthcare worker shortage by training more physicians.

Similarly, the Conrad State 30 and Physician Access Reauthorization Act enables qualified international doctors to remain in the U.S. after completing their medical schooling, offering a legislative solution to retain more healthcare professionals. These initiatives highlight the importance of policy and legislation in supporting the healthcare workforce.

Factors that Influence Healthcare Worker Retention

Addressing the healthcare worker shortage isn’t just about recruitment; retention plays an equally crucial role. According to research on the subject, there are several factors that influence healthcare worker retention:

  • COVID-19 stressors: Nurses and physicians became more vulnerable to burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to shortages.
  • Working conditions: Efforts to minimize administrative tasks and enhance healthcare infrastructure help enhance working conditions for staff. 
  • Job satisfaction: Higher job satisfaction, linked to factors such as patient satisfaction and the perception of delivering quality care, significantly contributes to healthcare professionals' decisions to stay in their positions.
  • Supportive work environment: Creating a culture that values teamwork, communication, and mutual respect among all staff members fosters a sense of community and belonging.
  • Competitive compensation and benefits: Offering attractive salary packages, health insurance, retirement plans, and other benefits may help retain talent and acknowledge the value of healthcare workers' contributions.

By prioritizing employee retention and addressing staff concerns, healthcare organizations can alleviate some pressures of workforce shortages. Improving internal communication, optimizing managerial planning, and offering better compensation can all contribute to a more satisfied and, therefore, more stable workforce. Implementing effective human resources strategies can further enhance these efforts.

Final Thoughts: The Call For Collaboration

The healthcare worker shortage presents a critical challenge to the sustainability and effectiveness of health systems in the United States and the rest of North America. As we have explored throughout this article, resolving this crisis requires a comprehensive approach that targets the factors contributing to the shortfall.

Strategies to mitigate the shortage include increasing the supply of healthcare professionals, establishing supportive policies and legislation, creating working environments conducive to training and retaining healthcare workers, and more.

Furthermore, collecting reliable data and using technology effectively support informed decision-making, resource allocation, and delivering quality patient care. Tools that increase automation and offer easy-to-interpret reports can ease the burden of administrative work, freeing up providers’ capacity for patient care.

To drive change, all stakeholders—from global health organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) to local healthcare providers—must be involved. Educational institutions must adapt to the healthcare sector's evolving needs, while policymakers must craft legislation that addresses the systemic issues contributing to the shortage. Healthcare workers themselves must advocate for conditions that enable them to provide quality care without succumbing to burnout.

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