What We Need Post-COVID Isn’t More Doctors and Nurses—It’s More Support Staff

As we’ve learned from COVID-19, we need to be more proactive and begin planning for the long term, and ensuring that healthcare organizations and the healthcare workforce can build more sustainable and diverse pools of skilled workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed cracks in the foundation of the healthcare industry, long thought of as one of the country’s most stable professions.

It was natural to assume that in the wake of a global public health crisis, demand for health professionals would shoot up. But instead, healthcare joined the long list of industries that were hit hard by the crisis. In fact, as Americans delayed medical care due to office closures and anxiety about the pandemic, hospital traffic plummeted, leading to layoffs and furloughs across the country. And while health occupations are expected to recover more quickly than nearly any other sector, the damage has already been done.

As the country struggles to chart a path to economic recovery, it’s clear that healthcare—like many other industries—will need to change and establish a new “normal.” That will include a transformation in the healthcare workforce, which was already the country’s largest and fastest-growing industry before the pandemic. Experts predict, for instance, thatdemand for home health aides will spike as a result of increased concerns about long-term care and skilled nursing facilities. But as healthcare organizations and systems plan for that shift, they must take into account that not all health professions are the same—and that some of the most often-overlooked occupations and skill sets are the ones that will be most critical to our recovery from the pandemic.

There is no doubt that an increase in the number of physicians and nurses will be necessary; however, it will not be sufficient. If we continue to only focus and rely on the physicians and nurses to fill the gaps in patient care, we risk overworking and overextending them by not providing the clinical and administrative support they need.

A More Diversified, Skilled Workforce

We must move toward having a more diversified healthcare workforce. The healthcare industry needs a renewed focus on the jobs and workers who perform critically important support functions on the front lines of patient care.

When entry-level workers’ jobs are cut, the workload—such as transporting patients and making beds—doesn’t go away; it just gets shifted onto physicians and nurses. In the first month of the pandemic, retired physicians and nurses across the country put their scrubs back on to join the fight against COVID-19. As the curve continues to rise, we can’t find ourselves in a position where we again look to staff after exhausting our other resources. Instead, investing in support staff can better enable physicians and nurses to focus on the critical care services they provide. By taking on critical tasks such as patient registration, transporting patients, cleaning and bathing patients, and collecting lab specimens, front-line healthcare workers free up time for doctors and nurses to perform more specialized tasks, such as administering IV medication, checking chest tubes and drainage, and monitoring ventilators and pulmonary function.

Beyond the need to fill the immediate skills gaps, diversifying and adding on to the front-line healthcare workforce allows incumbent employees, as well as those displaced due to COVID-19, to enter a new career path. These workers are often among the 71 million Americans without college degrees, who have learned on-the-job skills, but often are passed over for advancement opportunities because they lack traditional signals of job readiness, such as advanced education. But these workers, such as food service and sanitation staff, can be trained and upskilled to be clinical and administrative support staff, such as hospital care assistants, medical assistants, and patient service representatives. Not only does this address a critical patient care need, it also enables these workers to enter a new industry and chart a pathway to stable careers and more advancement.

In the wake of the pandemic, what many displaced workers need is a way to quickly learn new skills that are in high demand and can help them get back into the workforce. Emerging programs enable learners to get the skills and credentials they need, without the enormous expense and the demands of full-time or several years of schooling. The rise of short-form online programs can provide just that type of pathway while also enabling healthcare systems and their partner organizations to tap new sources of internal talent.

Focusing on Front-Line Workers

As we continue to weather this crisis and prepare for future ones, the U.S. healthcare system needs an urgent infusion of talent to ensure it’s ready to meet the healthcare needs of the community. As we’ve learned from COVID-19, we need to be more proactive and begin planning for the long term, and ensuring that healthcare organizations and the healthcare workforce can build more sustainable and diverse pools of skilled workers.

This must begin with a renewed focus on the front-line labor force. Creating more accessible career pathways for entry-level workers and support staff will do more than just relieve pressure on our current healthcare workforce. It will lay the foundation for a more effective, resilient healthcare system that will be ready to meet whatever challenges lie ahead in the coming months and years.

Jaime Nguyen, MD, MPH, MS is the director of Allied Health Programs at Penn Foster.

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