A Closer Look at the Public Health Workforce Shortage

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The public health workforce shortage is an issue that has long been at the forefront of the health care industry. Though leaders are well aware of the need for qualified practitioners in coming years, solutions have been slow to come. Innovation in public health education, like the growth of online programs, may be one key to solving this crisis. It’s crucial for current and prospective health care workers to thoroughly understand the state of the industry, both now and what’s projected in the future.

Confronting the Public Health Workforce Shortage

The impending shortage of public health workers has been a major topic of conversation over the last decade. A 2008 From the Schools of Public Health article forecast a need for more than 250,000 new healthcare workers to meet the growing demand by 2020. In the same year, the Center for State & Local Government Excellence highlighted the workforce shortage, stating that many governments were facing vacancy rates of up to 20 percent. The fact sheet noted a particular need for public health nurses, epidemiologists, and environmental health professionals. More recent reports echo the trend. The 2017 update to an earlier report by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) indicates a projected shortfall of nearly 105,000 physicians by 2030, including a shortage of between 7,300 and 43,100 for primary care physicians and a shortage of 33,500 to 61,800 for non-primary care specialties.

Contributing Factors to the Health Care Shortage

Several factors contribute to the shortage of healthcare workers:

  • The aging population generating a greater need for care
  • An aging health care workforce retiring many workers
  • Increases in chronic diseases
  • Limited capacity of education programs

According to a 2017 press release from AAMCNEWS, the population of Americans aged 65 and older will have increased 55 percent by 2030. AAMC President and CEO Darrell G. Kirch, MD notes that older patients “need two to three times as many services, mostly in specialty care, which is where the shortages are particularly severe.” Health care providers are also aging. The Atlantic reports that approximately one million registered nurses (RNs) are over the age of 50. The majority of nurses entered the workforce prior to the 1970s, which means that about a third of the nursing workforce will retire in the next 10 to 15 years. However, finding prospective nurses with a desire to fill the vacant roles isn’t the problem. In 2012, nearly 80,000 qualified applicants were turned away from nursing schools because of limited capacity.

Improving the Overall Health of the American Population

One of the many complex factors that will influence the need for future health care professionals is the overall health of the American population. America’s Healthy People 2020 program set forth the following goals:

  • Improve blood pressure control among adults with hypertension
  • Improve blood glucose control in patients with diabetes
  • Lower cholesterol levels for adults with hypercholesterolemia
  • Decrease obesity through improved nutrition and more exercise
  • Decrease the number of smokers

If the country achieved the Healthy People goals, the immediate need for healthcare professionals would decrease as health improved. However, by 2030, the need for physicians would actually increase, because approximately 6.3 million adults would still be living as a result of such health improvements. Also troubling is the revelation that the current workforce isn’t adequate to serve all of America’s population. If current barriers to healthcare utilization were removed and all Americans received the same level of care, the country would have needed as many as 96,800 additional public health professionals in 2015.

Health Care Shortages Around the World

The growing need for qualified health care professionals isn’t exclusive to the United States; it is a trend seen around the world. A 2016 study published in Human Resources for Health indicated a global demand for 80 million health care workers by 2030. The supply of healthcare professionals is expected to reach just 65 million, leaving a shortage of 15 million worldwide. Though the basic threshold for health care workers is 23 skilled professionals per 10,000 people, there are 83 countries that still fail to meet the standard. In 2012, there were 6.6 million deaths among children under the age of five. Most deaths were from preventable and treatable diseases. Just 58 countries are responsible for 80 percent of stillbirths and 90 percent of maternal deaths. Better healthcare in targeted parts of the world could dramatically improve these outcomes.

Strategies for Filling the Need

As reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health put together a list of recommended actions to address the worldwide need for health care workers. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Increasing technical and political leadership to support human resource development
  • Collecting reliable data for health databases
  • Making frontline health services more accessible and acceptable from community and mid-level healthcare professionals
  • Balancing the global distribution of healthcare workers and improving retention in needy countries
  • Giving healthcare workers a voice in the development of universal health coverage policies

For students of the healthcare professions, advancing your education is the best way to position yourself for one of the many choice positions that will become available in coming years. You should find no shortage of opportunities in healthcare for the public, particularly if you’re willing to relocate to meet the needs in particular geographic areas. The Keck School of Medicine of USC Master of Public Health Online program can help you advance your education remotely as you seek out the best location for your specialty.

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