A patient’s journey — from illness to recovery — is a play with many actors. Primary care physicians must diligently take note of symptoms and formulate treatment plans. Highly qualified specialists such as oncologists and anesthesiologists play extremely specific roles for which they are trained. Nurses, the largest group of healthcare professionals, must care for those in need and act as an intermediary between patients and doctors.
Unfortunately, the casting calls to fill these roles are left wanting; there are not enough healthcare professionals to meet the needs of the U.S. population. Patient-centered care requires the knowledge and skills of healthcare professionals of a wide range of disciplines, and many areas in the U.S. are experiencing healthcare staffing shortages.
How severe is this problem, how does it impact the population, and what can be done to address it? This article will delve into these issues and provide insight to this troubling problem.
Why Is There a Healthcare Shortage?
There are many different factors contributing to the current healthcare shortage:
- A growing aging population: The number of seniors is projected to double between 2006 and 2030, from 37 million to 71.5 million. This segment of the population makes twice as many physician visits when compared to younger generations, which will continue to increase stress on the healthcare system.
- An increase in retired healthcare workers: The aging physician workforce is retiring. Further, many healthcare professionals, contending with the stressors of an overburdened healthcare system, are experiencing burnout, leading to a high churn rate.
- Rises in chronic disease statistics: Along with a larger senior population, there are many more patients with chronic conditions. The World Health Organization notes that chronic disease has grown at an alarming rate over the past decade.
- Limitations of medical schools and residency programs: Medical schools and residency programs are not growing at a rate to educate and train enough healthcare professionals to meet the nation’s needs. While there are schools in every state with accredited nursing programs, they are not consistently graduating enough students to keep up with projected demand for caregivers. Physician residency programs can barely keep up with the need for medical school graduates, and many residents relocate after completing this stage of their education.
Healthcare Shortage Statistics
The statistics on supply and demand in the healthcare workforce are alarming. The U.S. population is growing by 25 million people each decade. With population growth, the number of hospital visits is rising sharply, which is compounded by the fact that the average number of visits by people over 45 has risen substantially over the past couple of decades.
The net result? The ratio of patients to doctors is widening. Far more healthcare professionals are needed to address the healthcare needs of the American population. Unfortunately, many physicians are retiring. Even though healthcare jobs are projected to continue to grow faster than jobs in the general economy, it is still not fast enough to cover the health needs of the populace. Indeed, this shortage will see the need for up to 120,000 physicians by the year 2030.
Upon reviewing data on health professional shortage areas, staffing problems can be seen most dramatically in the 10 states with the highest percent of unmet healthcare needs:
- Missouri: 89.93%
- Florida: 78.52%
- New Mexico: 76.58%
- New Jersey: 75.29%
- Washington: 74.72%
- Alaska: 73.66%
- New York: 71.73%
- Delaware: 67.19%
- North Dakota: 66.13%
- Montana: 65.59%
While this list reflects the biggest staffing shortages, even states that are performing relatively well in this respect have plenty of room for improvement. Approximately a third of all healthcare needs are left unmet even in the states with the lowest percentages, such as Rhode Island and South Carolina.
Solutions to the Healthcare Shortage
Leaders in the field are taking several different approaches to addressing the shortages outlined above. This includes leveraging technology to overcome the widening patient-doctor ratio, facilitating continued education to existing healthcare staff, and embracing sustainable hiring practices.
Technology has and will continue to play a central role in addressing the healthcare shortage. Digital care coordination can be used to guide patients toward appropriate healthcare providers, ensure treatment plan compliance, and monitor patients’ symptoms remotely by assessing their biometric data.
The latter can be accomplished with wearable technology and healthcare apps. Smartwatches, wearable sensors, and other specialized devices can provide actionable data to physicians. They enable professionals to track patient behavior and create a treatment plan that best meets their needs. Artificial intelligence can augment professionals’ abilities to make quick and accurate diagnoses, as well as formulate effective treatment plans, based on this data.
Through innovations in telehealth and VR technology, clinicians can also “meet” with patients remotely, expediting processes and enabling greater healthcare coverage in rural areas. As this technology continues the advance, the capabilities of health professionals to service the population digitally will grow.
Providing Continuing Education
In order to stay apprised of best practices and leverage new technology, it is imperative that healthcare staff is given access to appropriate continuing education opportunities from highly qualified programs. Educational programs can arm professionals with the skills needed to treat patients more effectively. Individuals in some occupations, such as nurses, must meet certification requirements, and these can change over time. Continued education can help address this as well.
They can also reduce the need for specialty doctors, as learning essential developments in the field can help primary care physicians and nurses fulfill roles once delegated to specialists — particularly as certain chronic diseases become more commonplace. Ultimately, such programs improve patient outcomes.
Creating Sustainable Workforces
The effectiveness of our healthcare system is inextricably tied to our educational, hiring, and training practices. Key considerations for creating an effective healthcare workforce include:
- Integrating best practices: Employees must adhere to strict codes of ethics to ensure patient security, confidentiality, and welfare. They must also be trained to perform consistently high-quality work to provide optimal patient outcomes.
- Effective distribution of healthcare professionals: Densely populated areas require a proportional number of healthcare staff to ensure each patient has access to adequate care. Rural areas also require sufficient access to ensure overall welfare. A failure to achieve balance in this regard can lead to compromised patient outcomes and employee burnout.
- Diversity: People of diverse ethnic, racial, or religious backgrounds can have different cultural expectations regarding healthcare. Diverse staff members are essential for addressing the needs of marginalized groups. Further, cultural competency is required to prevent discrimination or miscommunication from causing harm to patients and help employees perform to their fullest potential. Healthcare leadership must embrace diversity on all levels, including hiring and training practices, to address this concern.
Universities should collaborate in international partnerships to promote the highest quality of education possible. This can attract interest from qualified candidates across the globe. Further, domestic students can study internationally to be exposed to new experiences, diverse cultures, and healthcare concerns abroad.
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