Pandemic spotlights shortages in U.S. health care workforce

WASHINGTON (October 13, 2022)—Health care workers quit their jobs in large numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic, intensifying an existing worker shortage in health care professions like nursing. The overall health care workforce was down by 7.5 million workers in 2020, a 3.2% decrease from the previous year after growing steadily for the past decade.

The American Nurses Association estimated that more than a million nurses are required to join the workforce in the coming years to prevent a critical nursing shortage. The American Health Association also reports other shortages in health care, such as respiratory therapists and physicians—the country may face a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians by 2033.

Many industries, including healthcare, are facing what is being called "The Great Resignation," which Forbes magazine defined as "a mass exodus of unsatisfied workers." According to Elsevier Health's "Clinician of the Future" report, 47% of the U.S. health care workers are planning to leave their current jobs in the next few years—stress, trauma and work overload among the reasons for the departure. According to a 2022 nationwide survey, 28% of staff said that burnout is the main reason for quitting their health care jobs.

There was an estimated 20% increase in health care workers quitting the field in 2021 when compared to 2019 and 2020. This represents over 6 million workers and is 50% higher than 2012's quit rate.

According to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, accommodation and food services, professional and business services along with health care and social services faced some of the highest quit rates in 2021. Industries like wholesale trade, transportation, warehousing and utilities, and state and local government (excluding education) had relatively lower quit rates.

As hospitals and health care systems continued to face the challenges of the pandemic, hiring rates increased in 2020 and 2021. Hiring increased 8% in 2020 compared to 2019. An average of 8 million employees were hired in 2020 and 2021 each due to an increased demand for health care around the nation.

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

AAMC reports that a combination of "pandemic-related shutdowns that cut off other opportunities and accelerated medical career plans; increased awareness of how doctors can help to alleviate social injustices; and changes that reduced fees for some students and eliminated travel costs associated with applying" might have encouraged this unusual increase.

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

"Applying to med school is kind of a multi-year commitment. You know, it's not really something you can just 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, stressing that medical school is a "pretty long path."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ambulatory services and offices of physicians in Maryland recovered their staffing shortages that were felt during 2020 to their previous levels, but this was not the case for skilled nurses in the region.

The number of skilled nurses in Maryland has been dwindling for the past five years but saw the steepest decline in 2020, which continued to the next year as well. This is on par with the national nursing shortage—a shortage in the nursing workforce caused by the aging population and retiring nurses, according to Nurse Journal.

The pandemic amplified the problem. "When you work in other industries, you punch a timecard [when] you come in, you have your eight hours—you have time for a break and you're gone. In nursing, there often is not even time for biological breaks," said Sharon M. Weinstein, adjunct faculty at Purdue Global University, contributor to the American Nurses Association Professional Issues Fatigue Panel, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing.

Weinstein added that contributing factors like 12 and 16-hour shifts with infrequent breaks, low wages and scarcity of nursing faculty will "no doubt have an impact on the patient care delivery."

The shortage also resulted in less experienced nurses filling the gaps. "The pandemic encouraged hospitals and health care providers to take people straight out of school, to eliminate a lot of the clinical practicum that they would have had and to allow them to fill empty slots in hospitals and other healthcare organizations," Weinstein said.

At the beginning of the year, the Maryland State Senate introduced HB 696—also known as the Maryland Loan Assistance Repayment Program Fund for Nurses and Nursing Support Staff—as an incentive to help nurses repay education loans. Weinstein noted that relieving existing balances for aspiring or existing nurse educators will further improve the nursing community.

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