COVID pandemic highlights health workforce shortages

Nurses at work at the Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis. While nursing shortages have long been a problem for American hospitals, many medical professionals consider the current nursing shortage to be one of the most severe they have ever experienced. (Photo submitted)

Healthcare workers have quit their jobs in large numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic, intensifying an existing shortage of workers in healthcare professions like nursing. The overall health care workforce shrank by 7.5 million workers in 2020, down 3.2% from the previous year after steady growth over the past decade.

The American Nurses Association has estimated that more than one million nurses are needed to join the workforce in the coming years to avoid a severe nursing shortage. The American Health Association also reports other shortages in health care, such as respiratory therapists and doctors – the country could face a shortage of up to 124,000 doctors by 2033.

Many industries, including healthcare, are facing what’s been called “the great quit,” which Forbes magazine has defined as “a mass exodus of dissatisfied workers.” According to Elsevier Health’s “Clinician of the Future” report, 47% of US healthcare workers plan to leave their current jobs in the next few years – stress, trauma and overwork among the reasons for leaving. According to a 2022 national survey, 28% of employees said burnout was the top reason for leaving their healthcare jobs.

There was an estimated 20% increase in the number of healthcare workers leaving the field in 2021 compared to 2019 and 2020. This represents over 6 million workers and is 50% higher than the quit rate of 2012.

According to the job vacancies and labor turnover survey, accommodation and food services, professional and business services, and health care and social services recorded some of the highest rates. highest quit rates in 2021. Industries such as wholesale trade, transportation, warehousing and utilities, and utilities and local government (excluding education) had quit rates relatively weaker.

As hospitals and healthcare systems continued to face the challenges of the pandemic, hiring rates increased in 2020 and 2021. Hiring increased by 8% in 2020 compared to 2019. On average, 8 million employees were hired in 2020 and 2021 each due to increased demand for health care across the country.

Medical school application rates have increased along with the demand for health care workers. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the number of medical school applicants jumped for the 2021/2022 academic year – a staggering 17.8% – compared to the average increase of 2 to 3% per year for the past 20 years. .

The AAMC reports that a combination of “pandemic-related closures that cut other opportunities and accelerate medical career plans; increased awareness of how physicians can help alleviate social injustices; and changes that reduced fees for some students and eliminated travel costs associated with the application” may have encouraged this unusual increase.

JiMin Ko, a third-year medical student at Georgetown University, doesn’t necessarily think the surge in medical school applicants has much to do with the pandemic.

“Enrolling in medical school is kind of a multi-year commitment. You know, it’s not really something you can do on a whim,” Ko said.

“I think [the pandemic] may have cemented some people’s decision or maybe pushed them away from it,” he added, noting that medical school is a “quite a long road.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, outpatient services and doctors’ offices in Maryland have recovered from their staffing shortages that were felt in 2020 at their previous levels, but that was not the case for qualified nurses in the region. .

The number of qualified nurses in Maryland has been declining for the past five years, but saw the biggest decline in 2020, which also continued into the following year. This aligns with the national nursing shortage — a nursing workforce shortage caused by an aging population and retiring nurses, according to Nurse Journal.

The pandemic has amplified the problem. “When you work in other industries, you punch a time sheet [when] you go in, you have your eight hours – you have time to take a break and you are gone. In nursing, there’s often not even time for biological breaks,” said Sharon M. Weinstein, adjunct professor at Purdue Global University, contributor to the American Nurses Association’s Work Issues Fatigue Panel. and Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing.

Weinstein added that contributing factors such as 12- and 16-hour shifts with infrequent breaks, low salaries and scarcity of nursing faculty “will undoubtedly impact the delivery of patient care.” “.

The shortage has also resulted in less experienced nurses filling in the gaps. “The pandemic has encouraged hospitals and healthcare providers to pull people straight out of school, eliminate much of the clinical internship they would have had, and allow them to fill empty slots in hospitals and other healthcare organizations,” Weinstein said.

Earlier this year, the Maryland State Senate introduced SB0696 – also known as the Maryland Loan Assistance Repayment Program Fund for Nurses and Nursing Support Staff – as an incentive to help nurses repay their student loans. Weinstein noted that relieving existing balances for aspiring or existing nurse educators will further improve the nursing community.

Robert M. Larson