May 24, 2022 - Health

The health care workforce shortage problem

Countries with a health worker shortage in 2019
Data: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation; Note: According to the WHO's Universal Health Coverage Index; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

America's shortfall of health care workers is adding to the obstacles the Biden administration faces in returning the country to normal.

Why it matters: The nation entered the pandemic with major health care worker shortages and its workforce was strained to its limits in the emergency response to the COVID pandemic. It drove record levels of burnout and many to leave their roles.

Driving the news: The Biden administration ramped up the urgency around America's health care workforce on Monday, releasing new recommendations for addressing burnout and other factors contributing to shortages.

  • "If we fail to act to address health worker burnout, we will place our nation's health at increasing risk," U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said during prepared remarks on Monday.
  • "It will make it harder for our nation to ensure we are prepared for the next public health emergency. Disparities in such a setting will worsen as care becomes more scarce," he said. "And we will send a message to millions of health workers that their suffering does not matter."
  • "You do so much to take care of your patients in their time of need," Vice President Kamala Harris told health care workers as she visited Children's National Hospital in Washington with Murthy on Monday. "Which is why I'm here to say, we need to do a better job of taking care of you."

Between the lines: Earlier this month, the administration called for more fair and timely pay for health workers and for creating a more interconnected and sustainable workforce.

  • The White House also is asking Congress for $1 billion to fund a new Global Health Worker Initiative that would better support public health professionals responding to COVID, among other steps.  

The big picture: This is part of a global workforce shortfall that experts warn could hinder the global response to future health emergencies.

  • New data published in The Lancet on Monday showed the world had a global shortfall of at least 43 million health care workers before the pandemic even started.
  • Researchers estimated more than 130 countries had shortages of physicians and more than 150 had shortages of nurses and midwives. Many of the greatest disparities were in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • While this study did not show a shortage in the U.S., the findings track with statistics showing the nation had nearly 20,000 fewer doctors than required to meet the country's needs, per the Association of American Medical Colleges. A Morning Consult poll found nearly one in five health care workers quit during the pandemic.

What they're saying: "The takeaway is to invest more, particularly in developing countries, poorer income countries, to close the gap," senior author Rafael Lozano, director of health systems at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington's School of Medicine told Axios.

  • That includes encouraging high-income countries to follow WHO guidelines on responsible recruitment of health personnel to avoid contributing to workforce gaps in lower-income regions. "We need to put more balance," Lozano said.
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