The COVID-19 pandemic has directed unprecedented resources to advance research and recovery efforts at incredible speed. Yet this necessary challenging of resources has taken a toll on assets that aren’t created in a lab: healthcare workers.
Healthcare workers are reporting a higher incidence of stress and burnout, with data showing some experiencing PTSD, a condition often found in war zones. For months, many have worked intensely long shifts, wearing highly inflexible gear while treating, intubating, and toe-tagging patients. Crawling out of their shift at odd hours, many seek a few hours of respite at home, only to be shunned for being a contagion risk. Like the first responders from 9/11, we will be studying and managing the long-term effects of their health for years to come.
This risk comes at a time when the U.S. is facing a healthcare workforce shortage for those over 65 years, which is forecast to double between 2000 and 2030. In 2025, some estimates predict a shortage of more than 100,000 physicians due to retirement, specialization choices, and lack of viable medical residencies. To assume the field of nursing can fill the gap is flawed, as the field is growing faster (15 percent) since the late 1990s than all other occupations, while still managing its own supply challenges.
This supply challenge is most acute in rural communities, where accessing healthcare continues to drive health disparities. Rural healthcare was decimated during the pandemic, with hundreds of hospitals closing, and another 500 at risk. Rural patients are sicker and older, and for many, broadband internet is a luxury that makes telehealth a complicated solution. Many residents often return to their hometowns to serve after attaining their healthcare degrees, making up 14 percent of the employment in these settings. A loss of a hospital is a loss of stability and security.
To address shortages, there is an urgent campaign to recruit retired medical staff. COVID-19 is not only accelerating the shortage, it may dampen the interest of future students.
A concerted campaign to attract the next generation of healthcare leaders requires funding, online training, practice-friendly regulation, and respect. The launch of a national campaign “Let’s hear it for the healthcare trade degree” is just what the system needs now. Allowing students and those out of work to attain two-year trade degrees online, complimented by local practicums, would provide lifetime employment while bolstering our fragile pipeline.
Meghan FitzGerald is an associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. This year she published the book “Ascending Davos: A Career Journey from the Emergency Room to the Boardroom.” She resides in Aquinnah with her husband and rescue Weimaraners.