The dire warnings about healthcare worker shortages across the country must be taken seriously.
The media focuses on the shortage of nurses in the United States – a critical issue exacerbated by clinical and private nurses retiring, leaving vocation or suffering long hours and desperate conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is also a shortage of primary care physicians and physician assistants, as well as an equally concerning shortage of physiotherapists, speech-language pathologists, respiratory therapists and occupational therapists.
These professionals are the glue that binds the recovery process together for millions of Americans. Following surgery, illness or injury, patients often require immediate or prolonged care. Whether at home or in a clinical setting, regaining muscle strength and coordination, relearning to function effectively, and coping with various physical, mental, and emotional challenges is essential for successful recovery and for leading a reasonably independent and active life.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare employment must increase by 30% this decade to meet current and emerging needs. Each year, there are 12,200 planned openings for Physician Assistants, 10,100 openings for Occupational Therapists, 15,600 for Physical Therapists and 15,200 for Speech Language Pathologists.
The pandemic was an unforeseen crisis. Schools closed or switched to blended learning, rehabilitation centers were temporarily closed, and long-term care and nursing facilities, as well as schools, banned outsiders. Speech-language pathology, respiratory therapy and occupational therapy students were denied clinical placements, without which they could not graduate and apply for a license. Even with sophisticated simulators for classroom instruction and excellent instructors, these students could not progress without the hands-on clinical placements and training required by national accreditors. They remained helpless as the health crisis worsened.
Connecticut needs to accelerate the pipeline of students pursuing these vocations. The challenge isn’t always in attracting students – usually there are more applicants than there are slots available in health education programs like the School of Health Professions at the Sacred Heart University, with over 800 students applying for 42 open slots in our PA program alone. But finding and retaining qualified and experienced faculty (due to retirements and attrition) and identifying the hands-on clinical training opportunities students need to graduate and earn their Licence.
That said, it’s not a level playing field. Respiratory therapists (RTs) came into the spotlight as the outbreak worsened; many patients with pulmonary trauma required respiratory support, intubation and prolonged rehabilitation. Although there are a limited number of RT training programs in Connecticut, many have openings. The lower average salaries in this field as well as the lack of financial support for training are dissuasive. And with the shortage of respiratory therapists, those currently employed are being required to work longer hours, making them more prone to job stress and burnout.
We cannot just snap our fingers and create new health professionals. But reaching out to minority communities and ensuring students receive the necessary STEM learning in high school should be a priority in Connecticut. We also need to make their college education affordable. Addressing these challenges will require marketing activities, scholarships and other longer-term financial incentives such as low-interest loans or loan forgiveness for these essential workers.
In addition to recruiting clinicians for teaching roles, we encourage associate degree workers to complete their BAs, MAs and Ed.Ds to help them move into more challenging clinical positions as well as supervisory and teaching roles. And we’re working with the state government to find solutions such as loan repayment programs for students applying for and working in high-demand healthcare professions.
Congratulations to the Connecticut Legislature for passing a bill allocating $35 million for scholarships and faculty at public institutions and the Council of Independent Colleges of Connecticut for healthcare and behavioral health workforces over the next two exercises. They also approved a program to oversee $11 million in loan repayments over the next three years for healthcare workers in high-demand areas. And an additional $3 million in grants has been set aside to help higher education institutions provide mental health support.
Motivated high school and college students and people considering new careers should be actively sought out for health vocations. Additionally, to help ease the drain on our current workforce, we need to focus on the stock market, personal and virtual care, loan repayment incentives, increased wages, and improved health. access to clinical rotations and practical training. This requires strengthened partnerships with regional health care systems, matching an adequate pool of talented students with clinical training.
This will not happen overnight, but it is essential to ensure that action is taken today to build the health professions workforce that we need now – and will have more and more needed in the years to come – to prevent our next big health care crisis.
Maura Daly Iversen is Dean of College of Health Professions at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.