Americans in need of healthcare increasingly could face the challenge of finding qualified doctors and nurses, as experts warn of a growing national shortage of healthcare industry workers.
The trend could accelerate in the next decade as the country's aging baby boom generation at 78 million strong swiftly increases the demand for medical care. "We face an impending crisis as the growing number of older patients, who are living longer with more complex health needs, increasingly outpaces the number of healthcare providers with the knowledge and skills to care for them capably," said John W. Rowe, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University who co-wrote the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences report, "Retooling for an Aging America: Building the Healthcare Workforce".
At the same time, a rising number of aging healthcare workers will begin to retire, adding further stress to the situation.
Federal health experts have launched a response to the shortage by tracking the regions of the country with the worst shortages. They have designated more than 6,200 "health professional shortage areas" for primary care providers across the country. In addition, 4, 230 areas lacking dental care providers, and nearly 3,300 areas in need of mental health professionals have been identified. In all, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration projects a national shortage of more than 1 million nurses and about 55,000 physicians by 2020.
Why the shortage?
The shortage of primary care physicians, nurses, dentists and mental health workers has been growing for years. Yet many people struggle to understand how the industry could suffer from worker shortages in an era of economic recession, when many Americans are out of work.
One explanation points to the variety of workers who are needed to keep the healthcare industry functioning. Both professionals who provide direct health services such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and laboratory technicians or those who offer support services such as financial officers, cooks, drivers and cleaners are integral to the industry. A shortage in just one part of that complex web can stop other parts from working efficiently, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report.
The WHO notes that developed countries, such as the U.S. are experiencing a shortage due to a growing aging population and increasingly high-tech healthcare. At the same time, government and university leaders have underinvested in health worker education, leaving the country with too few new health workers to replace their retiring colleagues.
The causes are different in poorer nations, according to the WHO. Developing countries, largely in the southern hemisphere, face their own shortage as overworked doctors struggle to fight the AIDS epidemic and suffer high rates of HIV-related illness and death themselves. Add to this the fact that many third-world healthcare workers leave their home countries to seek higher wages and better working conditions in wealthier nations, and the shortages in these poorer nations worsen.
The effects of the shortages
The stakes are high and could have far-reaching effects. Public health nurses represent the largest group of public health professionals, comprising 10 percent of the workforce. Unfortunately, they also are experiencing the greatest shortage of workers. This could translate to poorer patient health surveillance, less patient education, lower breast feeding rates, or an increase in pre-term births and low birth weight rates, especially in underserved or disadvantaged areas, the WHO report concluded.
Alleviating the deficiencies
Regardless of geography, the solution must include increased funding for medical training and education to increase the number of people coming into the healthcare fields, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA).
Other ways to add more healthcare workers include funding higher salaries for working professionals, hiring more nursing faculty at universities, admitting more students to baccalaureate nursing programs, and increasing marketing and lobbying efforts to create a higher profile for the public health industry, according to an APHA report.
Another solution to the shortage is to train health workers on how to deal with the specific challenges they may meet in coming decades, including regulatory changes from healthcare reform, new technology used in creating digital health records, and the geriatric skills needed to treat elderly patients.
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