Even before the world was plunged into the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of healthcare worker shortages was already a significant concern across countries of varying developmental stages. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) responded to this escalating medical recruitment and retention crisis with a proactive move.
This resulted in the birth of the Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030. This strategy aimed to bolster the health workforce, resulting in an impressive 29% surge, reaching a tally of 65 million by 2020. However, the pandemic outbreak threw unforeseen challenges into the mix, putting healthcare workers to an unprecedented test.
Pandemic Struggles and Pre-existing Challenges
COVID-19 brought the global healthcare community to its knees, pushing healthcare workers to their limits. This crisis compounded the existing issues surrounding burnout, mental health, well-being, and workplace violence.
On top of their ongoing battle, healthcare workers had to grapple with an elevated risk of exposure to infection and death. It was as if the healthcare sector's arduous journey was suddenly laden with more weight.
Violence in Healthcare: An Ongoing Concern
Even before the pandemic, the healthcare sector was notoriously tricky. Astonishingly, healthcare workers were four times more likely to experience assaults than professionals in other fields. Among those most vulnerable were junior doctors, nurses, and those stationed in government hospitals, emergency departments, and intensive-care units.
India, in particular, stood out with its disproportionate share of violence-related incidents, especially during the pandemic. Shockingly, a study found that 75% of Indian doctors had encountered violence in their workplaces. Despite measures to curb this issue—ranging from stricter laws and hefty fines to enhanced security—the problem only seemed to escalate.
The consequences of violence ripple outward, affecting healthcare workers, healthcare systems, and society. The impacts are vast, from fatalities and injuries to decreased job satisfaction and increased leave days. Additionally, violence catalyzes burnout, which leads to an exodus of professionals from the sector and reduced recruitment.
Global Shortage: A Looming Crisis
Even before accounting for the pandemic's effects, a shortfall of approximately 10 million healthcare workers was projected by 2030 on a global scale, with low- and middle-income countries being hit the hardest.
The imbalanced distribution of physicians escalated as more sought refuge in higher-income nations for improved working conditions and career prospects. This crisis has dire implications for the countries of origin, both economically and in terms of healthcare, while also deepening the rift in healthcare workers' skills and availability on a global level.
The Struggles Beyond Borders
Ironically, even in high-income countries, healthcare workers encounter their fair share of obstacles. Odd hours, family-life-incompatible shift patterns, and heightened stress levels form a challenging landscape. Many healthcare workers grapple with dissatisfaction and "moral injury," feeling constrained in their ability to provide holistic care.
Bureaucratic systems, reduced autonomy, and isolation in unfamiliar settings further contribute to the struggle. Financial disincentives like tax regulations, such as the UK's NHS pension scheme tax rules, force experienced doctors to consider early retirement, limiting their leadership roles and workload due to excessive charges.
The Looming Crisis of Burnout
A survey by the Commonwealth Fund highlighted the overwhelming burnout and stress experienced by primary care doctors across higher-income countries. The pandemic further compounded these issues, negatively impacting the quality of care they could provide.
Younger physicians were especially susceptible to stress and burnout, with older counterparts considering retirement within the next few years. This trend leaves a primary care workforce with a significant proportion of younger, stressed, and burnt-out professionals.
Towards a Solution: Resilient Healthcare Systems
The journey toward resolving these challenges requires the establishment of resilient healthcare systems. This stands as a key pillar in the Health and Healthcare Strategic Outlook. Central to this pillar is a motivated, highly skilled, well-resourced healthcare workforce. The Strategic Outlook unveils eight strategic approaches for stakeholders—both public and private—to adopt in tackling healthcare worker shortages.
Addressing Violence and Fostering Partnership
In India, crafting policies to protect healthcare workers from violence is a crucial step forward. WHO's guidance can serve as a valuable reference point. Incentivizing young doctors through public-private partnerships and cross-industry collaboration can steer them toward a sustainable, long-term medical career. Adequate rewards can then retain these professionals not only in the sector but also within the country.
Embracing Digitalization and Alternative Care Models
On a global scale, the joint deployment of digitalization and decentralization can pave the way for innovative care models such as telecare and homecare. These alternatives can alleviate pressure on acute care settings, granting healthcare workers more time to enhance patient care, boost satisfaction, and elevate outcomes.