Among the many stresses the healthcare system has faced in the past year, an increasingly growing problem is the impending workforce crisis. These challenges have escalated significantly in the past two years, with Covid-19 truly stretching healthcare workers and organizations thin.
Indeed, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, physicians, nurses, and other essential workers on the front-lines of the war against coronavirus did not know what they were facing on a day-to-day basis; many risked their own lives to treat their patients, often not having enough personal protective equipment and living in a constant state of uncertainty as to where the pandemic would go.
A study published in this month’s Mayo Clinic Proceedings examines exactly this: “COVID-Related Stress and Work Intentions in a Sample of US Health Care Workers.” The results are jarring: “Among 20,665 respondents at 124 institutions […] intention to reduce hours was highest among nurses (33.7%; n=776), physicians (31.4%; n=2914), and advanced practice providers (APPs; 28.9%; n=608) […] Intention to leave one’s practice within 2 years was highest among nurses (40.0%; n=921), APPs (33.0%; n=694), other clinical staff (29.4%; n=718), and physicians (23.8%; n=2204)…”
To summarize, the study found that nearly 1 in 3 physicians and nurses reported a clear intention to reduce work hours, and that nearly 2 in 5 nurses and 1 in 4 physicians intend to leave their practice altogether. Frightening results indeed.
WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 02: A medical professional from Children’s National Hospital works at a … [+]
But the results aren’t solely frightening due to the significant impact of Covid-19 on the outlook of healthcare workers. Instead, there are very real and monumental repercussions to these findings. Most importantly, the healthcare system was already distressed prior to the pandemic with regards to a shortage of professionals. Many communities, especially those in more remote locations, were already facing massive wait-times, with primary care offices often taking months to see new patients and long emergency department wait times.
Now, in the aftermath of the pandemic, the state of affairs continues to deteriorate. According to a study done earlier this year by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), “the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care.” AAMC President and CEO David Skorton noted multiple possible reasons for this crisis, including clinician burnout, an aging population creating increased demand, and many physicians naturally reaching retirement age. Skorton also commented: “Physicians and other health professionals dedicate their careers to keeping people healthy and caring for us when we are sick. During the past year, these individuals and their families have made enormous personal sacrifices as they responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and we owe them an immense amount of gratitude.”
Healthcare workers continue to grapple with these resource issues, especially in the face of a potential “Twindemic,” entailing surging cases of influenza (“the flu”) and rising Covid-19 cases due to Omicron. With physician and nursing shortages, supply chain disruptions, and a generally fatigued workforce, the healthcare system certainly has a challenging few months and year ahead of it. Only time will tell not only how the system is able to circumvent the current crisis, but also how organizational and policy leaders can spearhead sustainable and long-lasting efforts to mitigate this dire issue recurring in the future.