A recent, and well deserved, trend in media outlets is congratulating and thanking health care workers for being heroes in the unprecedented crisis of Covid-19. While the Delta variant and battles over vaccine mandates still rage, there are many taking a cautious sigh of relief that the end is in sight for our healthcare struggles. Unfortunately, Covid-19 may have exacerbated an existing issue within the healthcare industry that will lead to a new crisis in the near future: healthcare worker shortage.
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has been sounding the alarm for years that the rate of job growth in the healthcare industry, especially in the area of registered nurses, is not sufficient for rising healthcare needs. In 2017, more than 50% of registered nurses were over the age of 50, and it is projected that 200,000 new nurses will be needed every year to meet healthcare needs and to recoup staffing losses from retiring nurses. The dark shadow hanging over the head of the healthcare industry is the rapidly approaching retirement of the Baby Boomers. The largest generation in America’s history is entering their twilight years and want to retire. As of September 2020, 40% of all Baby Boomers have entered retirement. Not only is the healthcare industry losing millions of workers to retirement, as is evident by the disproportionately older demographics in the nursing field, but the Boomers themselves will be a severe stress on our nation’s healthcare. Baby Boomers live longer and are likely to suffer from high rates of obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes. The healthcare industry’s labor shortage was already a fire beginning to grow, but the pandemic has done more than fuel the flames.
Covid-19 has intensified the terrible problem of burnout in the healthcare field. Many of the Healthcare Heroes that we adore for their selfless service are considering getting out of the field altogether. Over half of healthcare workers, which includes the nursing assistants found in retirement homes, have reported burnout from work. The stresses of working in unprecedented conditions have taken their toll on our severely needed healthcare professionals. Additionally, the push against Covid vaccines has led to many workers feeling betrayed by the people they painstakingly served. Many have become disillusioned with the profession and are considering switching careers. The poor disposition of current healthcare workers must serve as a deterrent for those who are desperately needed to join the field. The inevitability of Baby Boomers entering retirement and stressing the system was already not being alleviated by projected employment increases and who knows how badly the effects of burnout will worsen the situation. This loss of faith in the system comes at the worst possible time, as the already existing labor shortage was not being treated.
Thankfully, the Federal government seems to be aware of the present danger that a healthcare worker shortage presents. Before the American Rescue Plan Act was passed, Congress modified it to direct more funds to the public healthcare system. Specifically, the act sent over nine billion dollars towards workforce related support, which will primarily assist in hiring new staff with proper equipment. Some members of Congress are trying to further assist current healthcare workers, such as Representative Maloney with her reintroduction of the Student Loan Forgiveness for Frontline Health Workers Act. This act would reward the service of healthcare workers by forgiving their student loans; however, Congress seems hesitant to pass additional costly legislation after the difficulty they had with the American Rescue Plan Act.
The importance of healthcare workers is undeniable, and they certainly deserve the title of “heroes” for their service. A large debt is certainly owed to the professionals that pulled us through the worst of the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan will hopefully address the worker shortage, and it might be a sign that society at large is acknowledging the plight of our vital healthcare heroes.