The Shortage of Healthcare Workers in the U.S.

A medical professional in a white coat with a stethoscope around their throat is holding a syringe prepared with medication.

The number of healthcare workers needs to increase dramatically to meet demand in the coming years. A study by consulting firm Mercer projected that the U.S. would face significant healthcare worker shortages in the coming decade.

By 2025, the firm forecasts a shortage of more than 400,000 home health aides and 29,400 nurse practitioners. There will also be shortages in other healthcare professions.

The shortage concern is not new. A summary of a 2009 National Academy of Sciences workshop on the oncology workforce raised concerns about a shortage of physicians, nurses, and allied healthcare professionals a full decade before the Mercer study.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Healthcare workers need extensive training and specific qualifications, so providers cannot simply hire new workers off the street.

There have been different responses and plans that seek to address healthcare worker shortages.

Why Is There a Shortage of Healthcare Workers?

The problem has become especially acute recently due to the aging population, including the so-called Baby Boomer generation. People in this demographic often require more medical care, often from physician specialists.

Advances in medicine also mean that people are living longer overall, and managing more chronic conditions as they age, so those who reach retirement age will still need healthcare for a more extended time than previous generations. This need for more gerontologists and other specialists is in part behind a growing drought of general care doctors to serve the rest of the population.

The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts a shortage of as many as 122,000 physicians by 2032. The report that made this dire prediction also pointed out that the over-65 population will grow by 48% by 2032. Unfortunately, many working physicians will also be reaching retirement age along with the rest of the Baby Boomers.

Rural areas could experience more problems because of the physician shortage than urban areas. According to current data for Healthcare Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs), mostly-rural states such as Utah, Vermont, Tennessee, as well as remote territories like Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, have the highest shortages in medical professionals per capita.

Where Is the Shortage of Healthcare Professionals Most Dramatic?

As the demand for quality healthcare professionals increases, there are shortages or projected shortages across the industry. However, workforce deficits are most apparent and dramatic in certain professions. The shortages are one of the most immediate issues confronting the modern healthcare industry.

Physician Shortage

The AAMC projects a dramatic shortage of physicians in 2032. However, this shortage is even more problematic when you consider physician specialties. More physicians choose to enter specialized fields when they complete medical school, as opposed to primary care or family medicine. They specialize by undertaking an internship and residency in a specific area. These specialties are often more lucrative and prestigious than general medicine, so medical school graduates consider pursuing them to be worthwhile.

Since primary care physicians who practice general internal medicine are in the highest demand (because they are the ones that see the most patients), the lack of qualified people in this area is especially problematic.

One solution is for healthcare providers to fill the role of general practitioner physicians with qualified nurses or physician assistants. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants can perform some of the duties that a general practitioner doctor performs.

Depending on state laws, they may have to work under the supervision of a physician, but the physician can also oversee multiple healthcare workers. Though physician assistants and nurse practitioners need a master’s degree and supervised clinical experience, these jobs require less schooling overall than a doctor.

Furthermore, nurse practitioners can start their career with a lower degree and obtain additional qualifications while working.

Nurse Shortage

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for qualified nurses will increase much faster than the need for all professionals in the coming decade. This increase is especially true for nurses with a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN).

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) points to data that suggests that the country will need more than 200,000 new nurses each year until 2026 to fill new positions or replace retiring nurses.

Though enrollment in nursing programs is increasing, it is not sufficient to meet demand. This shortage is especially acute in areas such as education and for certified family nurse practitioners who can provide primary care without a doctor’s direct supervision.

In some cases, healthcare providers can resort to hiring travel nurses, who go to different clinics or hospitals to fill temporary shortages.

Some nurses move to specialized areas rather than remaining in primary care, where there is the highest need. While family medicine and general practice are looking at a shortage, there is also an acute need for specialist nurses like forensic nurses, where shortages create backlogs that slow investigations into crimes such as rape and abuse.

Healthcare Educator Shortage

The nursing shortage also includes educators. Some schools may even need to restrict enrollment because of a lack of nursing faculty. More people want to become nurses, but there are not enough teachers to meet demand.

In their article about nursing shortages, the AACN said that nearly two-thirds of nursing programs did not accept qualified applicants because they did not have enough faculty to teach them.

The need is not only for nursing facilities to teach in associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs. Nursing assistants and health aides also need training. Furthermore, a need for nurse practitioners means that schools need faculty members who can teach in master’s degree programs and oversee clinical practice for aspiring nurse practitioners.

Nurses who wish to help close the provider gap by training the next nurse workforce need to earn a nurse educator certification before they can start teaching.

Midwife Shortage

The U.S. also needs more midwives to provide proper care during childbirth. Midwives can address a shortage of O.B./GYNs and issues such as an abnormally high rate of cesarean sections in the U.S.

Currently, midwives only attend about 8% of births in the U.S. They are qualified, with a master’s degree and two years of clinical training, to provide care during and after childbirth. Childbirth overseen by a midwife is cheaper than birth with a physician.

Furthermore, midwives can provide more personal attention, which could lower the mother and infant mortality rates, which are higher in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries.

Strategies for Restoring the Healthcare Workforce

There are many strategies for increasing the number of healthcare workers and addressing shortages so that they do not cripple the healthcare industry.

  • Promote Public Health and Preventative Measures. By giving people the resources and knowledge to remain healthy, you lower their need for medical services.
  • Attract More Nurses to Primary Care Roles. Primary care nurses can help alleviate physician shortages by offering basic care to patients who do not necessarily need a physician’s care. They can help manage chronic conditions and offer self-care advice that can help people manage their conditions and general health so that they require less medical attention in the future.
  • Provide Online Healthcare Degrees and Certificates. Online healthcare degrees can make healthcare careers more accessible to more people. Of course, these careers still require clinical training, but students can complete classroom work online.
  • Increasing Policy Initiatives Aimed at Supporting Human Resource Development. Policies can make it easier for healthcare human resources professionals to find qualified personnel, offer on-the-job training, and make training more accessible to people who want to enter the healthcare field.
  • Collecting Reliable Data for Health Databases. Having access to more data can lead to more streamlined healthcare services. Providers can improve outcome performance and make data-driven decisions about care and treatment if they have access to more information.
  • Giving Healthcare Workers a Voice in Shaping Legislation and Policies. Healthcare workers are the most qualified to make decisions about how to change their industry for the better. If they can offer insights to government lawmakers and industry leaders, they may be able to bring about changes that make their jobs easier and make them more effective in clinical settings.