Industry Voices—Code blue: Rescuing America's healthcare system by bolstering the workforce pipeline

Unless the U.S. attracts more nurses and allied health professionals into the workforce, our healthcare system will soon face catastrophic consequences.

Countless indicators point to a shortage of professionals across healthcare. By 2025, the US will face a gap of 200,000 to 450,000 nurses. Meanwhile, 85% of healthcare facilities are facing allied healthcare professional shortages, including medical assistants, laboratory professionals, pharmacy technicians and medical coders. These shortages mean healthcare facilities from hospitals to nursing homes to physician practices are all dealing with limited capacity. Ultimately, this limits patient access to timely care for all Americans.

Sooner or later, this capacity crunch will impact all patients, as increased turnover and staff vacancies could cause significant delays in treatment, increase waiting times, and make it harder for healthcare professionals to provide the high-touch, personal care every patient deserves. Instead of wringing our collective hands, however, we must work to get more nurses and allied health professionals to the bedside by taking a comprehensive view of the healthcare workforce pipeline. Doing so would alleviate the pressure on existing staff, reduce turnover, increase the capacity of our nation’s healthcare system, and improve patient care.

To alleviate these dangerous shortages, policymakers and healthcare leaders must focus their efforts earlier in the pipeline—where the supply of healthcare professionals begins. The US must pursue long-term solutions to strengthen the pipeline of students training to become nurses and allied health professionals, including increasing student enrollment and strengthening the ability of schools and faculty to provide the support students need to graduate as practice-ready professionals. If this strategy is successful, it will pay a “generational dividend” by ensuring we have a future healthcare workforce trained and prepared to meet future healthcare demands.

And, we need to take a serious look at our growing shortage of educators. An undeniable shortage of healthcare faculty at U.S. colleges has created a major bottleneck in the system. In 2023, nearly one-in-ten nursing faculty positions were vacant. With the average age of nursing program faculty in the mid-to-late 50s, many educators will retire soon, increasing the urgency of replacing them. Yet, enrollment in nursing Ph.D. programs that train nursing faculty has dropped precipitously by 15% over the last decade. Encouraging more nurses to become and remain educators requires a multi-pronged approach including incentives and pathways for nurses who have more than a decade of proven clinical experience to become educators. Novice educators also need more support through educational technology in the classroom to alleviate heavy workloads, increase productivity, reduce burnout, and help bolster student engagement.

With more educators, schools could admit more students. With more than 78,000 qualified applications turned away from nursing schools in 2022 alone, imagine how patients’ access to care would improve if nursing programs could admit everyone qualified and interested in becoming a nurse. Furthermore, many nursing and allied health programs are closing due to enormous fiscal pressures and educator shortages. Finally, limited clinical training opportunities and too few preceptors inherently limit how many students can enter these fields. All this seriously jeopardizes students’ opportunities to pursue careers in these critical fields—and ultimately exacerbates the shortage of healthcare providers in areas already reeling from a diminishing workforce.

This evidence suggests the need for greater public and private action to help schools invest in faculty and expand their capacity. We must collectively motivate and support younger students to enter the healthcare field. The U.S. must help them prepare academically for the rigors that nursing and allied health programs require. The Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing's Future and the success of high school healthcare workforce programs provide a model for other stakeholders to emulate. The Healthcare Workforce Coalition, which my organization has joined as a founding member, is also bringing together a wide array of stakeholders to tackle these complex issues comprehensively.

Finally, Congress must pass bipartisan legislation to build the infrastructure needed to strengthen the healthcare professions pipeline. I commend the U.S. Senate for unanimously passing The Train More Nurses Act (S. 2853/H.R. 6122), which, if enacted, would require the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor to conduct a study and issue a report on grant programs to bolster the nursing workforce and create pathways to increase nurse faculty, particularly in underserved areas. I also applaud the reintroduction of the Future Advancement of Academic Nursing (FAAN) Act which would support a $1 billion grant program to help nursing schools expand capacity and modernize infrastructure, enhance preparedness for public health emergencies, and enroll underrepresented students, if passed. I urge the House to pass these bills and encourage lawmakers to consider legislation such as The Allied Health Opportunity Act (S. 2304), The PRECEPT Nurses Act (S. 1627), The Nurse Faculty Shortage Reduction Act (S. 2815/H.R. 7002), and The Occupational and Workforce Training for Healthcare (GROWTH) Act (H.R. 6078), which would all help advance national efforts to graduate more practice-ready healthcare professionals.

Meeting our country’s current and future healthcare workforce demands will take at least a decade to fix if we act now. But, as the crisis compounds by the day, the alternative of doing nothing is worse. Urgent action is needed to stabilize our country’s healthcare workforce and ensure patients can always access the high-quality care they deserve.

Sean Burke is president of the healthcare division of Ascend Learning.