Dire warnings concerning health-care worker shortages across the nation should be taken seriously.
Media focuses on the U.S. nursing shortage—a critical problem exacerbated by clinical and private-duty nurses retiring, leaving the vocation or suffering from long hours and desperate conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a dearth of primary care physicians and physician assistants (PAs), as well, and an equally concerning shortfall of physical, speech, respiratory and occupational therapists.
These professionals are the glue that binds the recovery process for millions of Americans. Following surgery, an illness or injury, patients often need immediate or extended care. Whether in their homes or a clinical setting, regaining muscular strength and coordination, relearning how to function effectively and dealing with various physical, mental and emotional challenges is vital to successful recovery and to living a reasonably independent, active life.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare employment needs to grow by as much as 30 percent this decade to meet current and emerging needs. Annually there are 12,200 projected openings for PAs, 10,100 openings for occupational therapists, 15,600 for physical therapists and 15,200 for speech pathologists.
The pandemic was an unforeseen crisis. Schools closed or moved to hybrid learning, rehab centers were temporarily shuttered and long-term care and nursing institutions, as well as schools, prohibited outsiders. Speech, respiratory and occupational therapy students were denied clinical placements, without which they could not graduate and apply for licenses. Even with sophisticated simulators for classroom teaching and excellent instructors, these students could not advance without the hands-on clinical placements and training required by national accreditors. They stood by helplessly while the health-care crisis worsened.
Connecticut must accelerate the pipeline of students pursuing these vocations. The challenge isn’t always about attracting students—typically there are more applicants than there are available slots in healthcare education programs like Sacred Heart University’s College of Health Professions, with more than 800 students applying for 42 open slots just in our PA program. But finding and retaining qualified, experienced faculty (due to retirements and attrition) and identifying opportunities for the hands-on clinical training students need to graduate and become licensed is essential.
That said, it isn’t an even playing field. Respiratory therapists (RTs) were thrown into the limelight as the epidemic worsened; many patients suffering from lung-related trauma required breathing assistance, intubation and prolonged rehab. Though there are a limited number of RT training programs in Connecticut, many have openings. Lower average salaries in this field plus the lack of financial assistance for training are deterrents. And with the shortage of RTs, those currently employed are required to work longer hours, making them more prone to job stress and burnout.
We cannot simply snap our fingers and create new healthcare practitioners. But reaching out to minority communities and ensuring students are receiving the necessary STEM learning in high school should be a priority in Connecticut. We also must make their college education affordable. Addressing these challenges will require marketing outreach, scholarships and other longer-term financial incentives such as low-interest loans or loan forgiveness for these essential workers.
In addition to recruiting clinicians to teaching roles, we encourage workers with associates degree to complete their BAs, MAs and Ed.D.s to help them move into more challenging clinical positions as well as supervisory and teaching roles. And we are working with state government to seek remedies such as loan-repayment programs for students who apply for and work in high-demand health professions.
Kudos to the Connecticut legislature for passing a bill allocating $35 million for scholarships and faculty at public and Connecticut Council of Independent Colleges institutions for health care and the behavioral health workforces over the next two fiscal years. They also approved a program for overseeing $11 million in loan reimbursements over the next three years for health-care workers in high-demand areas. And an additional $3 million in grant funding has been set aside to help institutions of higher learning offer mental health support.
Motivated high school, college students and people considering new careers should be aggressively solicited for healthcare vocations. Additionally, to help mitigate the drain on our current workforce, we need to focus on fellowship, self- and virtual-care, loan-repayment incentives, increased salaries and improved access to clinical rotations and hands-on training. This requires enhanced partnerships with regional health-care systems, matching an adequate pipeline of talented students with clinical training.
This won’t happen overnight, but ensuring that steps are being taken today to build the health-professions workforce we need now—and will increasingly need in the coming years – is essential to prevent our next great health-care crisis.
Maura Daly Iversen is Dean of the College of Health Professions at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.