Healthcare facilities across the country are experiencing dramatic HCP shortages. On a global scale, it is predicted that there will be a deficit of 13 million nurses by 2030. For reference, the global nursing population was around 28 million by January 2022, when the report was written. There are many reasons why the healthcare system is straining under the weight of impending shortages. The pandemic and stressful work conditions are among the most commonly cited, and for good reasons. It cannot be forgotten that this problem is multifaceted, however. The healthcare shortage is the result of a confluence of factors, rather than one singular catalyst. With this in mind, the link between an aging population and the HCP shortage cannot be overlooked.
How Rapidly Is the Population Aging?
In the US, the senior demographic is exponentially growing. From 1920 to 2020, a US Census found that the 65 and overpopulation has grown five times faster than every other demographic. By 2020, these senior citizens made up 16.8 percent of America’s population. From 4.9 million (or 4.7% of the population), there was an elderly population of 55.8 million in 2020. For reference, this is 16.8% of the population. Though the elderly population has steadily grown over time, 2010 to 2020 marked the largest increase in any decade, from 1920 onwards. It should be noted that although this growth is notable, the US is only the 34th oldest population at the time of writing. Japan leads the pack with 28.5%, which is significantly larger than the US’s ratio.
How Does the Aging Population Affect the Healthcare Industry?
As the aging demographic rises, so does the demand for healthcare services. Understandably, older populations encounter more medical issues compared to their younger counterparts. This includes (but is not limited to) osteoarthritis, dementia, chronic back and neck pains, hearing and sight loss, and more. As a result, these people will be in need of additional medical attention. Because the aging population makes up such a large portion of the population, this raises the demand for HCPs and healthcare services by orders of magnitude. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics proposes that the bulk of the job growth for HCP work will be as a direct result of these aging populations.
Why Would This Increase in HCP Demand Be Negative?
On paper, this is very much a good thing since higher demand means more work. In reality, this is somewhat of a double edged sword. When the industry is already struggling with HCP shortages, the increased admissions of elderly people will only exacerbate the issue even further. Hospitals or long-term care centres that are already at maximum capacity will either have to turn their backs on elderly people seeking care or will admit them and further increase their daunting workload.
HCPs will be further stretched out, as HCP-to-patient staffing ratios become more and more untenable. When a facility handles more patients than they can be reasonably expected to accommodate, then the quality of care will suffer as a result. Elderly patients in need of urgent treatment will either be forced to sit on the waiting list or subject themselves to substandard care. In these conditions, neither the facilities, the HCPs, nor the patients themselves win out.
How Else Does the Aging Population Affect the Healthcare Shortage?
As time passes, existing HCPs will continue to age out of the industry. Senior nurse leaders, doctors, physicians, facility administrators, and more will continue to retire by the droves. This contributes to the turnover that we are currently experiencing in the healthcare industry, and puts further pressure on the HCPs that remain. According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, 600,000 US HCPs are expected to leave the industry by 2027. Retirement is cited among the main motivators, alongside the burnout and stress that has been tied to the profession for quite some time.
In addition, HCPs are retiring much earlier precisely because of the stressful working conditions, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the median age for HCPs sat at 52. Of these, at least one-fifth of the HCP base was heavily considering retirement, directly because of the pandemic. Not only is the workforce aging out, but HCPs want to leave the industry much earlier than initially expected. This leaves facilities scrambling to fill the gaps, and gives an even greater workload to the nurses, doctors and physicians that choose to remain in the industry. If left unattended, this will cause a self-perpetuating cycle of turnover, increased stress, and accelerated retirements.
What Can Be Done?
As you can see, the US’s aging population affects and informs its HCP shortage crisis. It adds further pressure on facilities while increasing turnover as more senior HCPs retire in droves. That begs the question, then: what can be done to address this? For the long-term outlook of a facility, investing in developing healthcare talent is the only way to sustainably tackle this issue. There are a number of programs that were founded to address this exact issue. For example: The Florida Government has made significant investments in HCP education infrastructure.
Other programs like the ASPIRE Nurse Scholars program addresses the issue of accessibility and affordability, by offering scholarships to excellent students who are economically disadvantaged. These are just a few of the numerous programs that were started to bolster the HCP pipeline. Better accessibility, improved infrastructure, and government funding is needed, to make up for the retired HCPs who are leaving the industry.
Are There Any Short-Term Staffing Solutions?
These are the long-term solutions, but what about short-term stopgaps? Investing in new HCPs may pay off in the future, but there are vacancies that need to be filled this very second. For these, facilities have turned to temporary staffing solutions from nurse agencies and staffing apps like VitaWerks. This allows them to book temporary HCPs for a specific time period. It could be weeks, months, or even a single shift. This allows facilities to access readily available and experienced HCPs who can immediately contribute.
Instead of “replacing” full-time HCPs, they are there to help and supplement them, by taking some of the workload and lightening up the burden as a result. These options have even gained popularity among HCPs who prefer more work-life balance and flexibility when it comes to their work schedule. When it comes to accounting for temporary surges in demand, or biding time until facilities can bring more long-term staff on board, this kind of “per diem” staffing is the way to go.
The HCP shortage will not stop anytime soon. An aging population is one of the major factors contributing to these conditions, but it certainly is not the only one. Regardless, all facilities can do now is think on their toes. For the future of the industry, big investments in the long term must be made. Education and training for new HCPs could alleviate these dramatic shortages, someday. Meanwhile, short-term staffing solutions are available for facilities that need more HCPs as soon as possible. With the right resource allocation, hospitals, long-term care centres, and other facilities can continue to thrive.