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US recovering from physician shortage, but hospital wait times still bad

The US may be recovering from a physician shortage, but don’t expect to spend less time in hospital waiting rooms this year.

Healthcare worker numbers are steadily growing but remain below pre-pandemic trends, according to a Bank of America report published in April. The bank’s data and analysis firm, The Bank of America Institute, based findings on internal workforce data collected between 2019 and 2024.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that the healthcare sector is 1.6% behind on growth based on pre-pandemic projections. Outpatient care centers are 9.4% behind on growth, while the hospital labor force has seen small gains at 0.3%.

One of the reasons job growth has been behind, according to the Bank of America report, is that workers in the healthcare sector have also seen “soft wage growth” in recent years. Additionally, the report found many employees are still underpaid because they tend to interact more with clients and work more labor-intensive hours than employees in other industries.

Between April 2022 and April 2023 — the most recent available data — the national median time patients spent in the emergency department was 162 minutes, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In the same period between 2020 and 2021, CMS found that time was 149 minutes.

The pandemic worsened an already growing problem, as unemployment rates jumped, more people needed urgent medical care, and reports of doctor and nurse burnout skyrocketed. In fact, healthcare workers made up a significant portion of the people leaving their jobs during the Great Resignation.

Ambulatory care — which includes all appointments and treatments that don’t require hospital admission — makes up half of all jobs in the healthcare sector, Bank of America found. Hospitals employ just over 30% of healthcare workers while under 20% of employees work at nursing and residential care facilities.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that the healthcare sector employed about 10% of total US workers last year, a share of the labor force that has remained consistent for the past decade.

This ongoing shortage comes as Americans worry about medical debt, the rising price of prescription drugs, and the staggering costs of emergency medical care. Per KFF (formerly known as Kaiser Family Foundation), three in four US adults say that healthcare is one of their top financial concerns.

Patients will still see labor shortages in ERs and care facilities
Despite labor gains, patients could still experience the impacts of the physician shortage. The US is expected to face a physician shortage of up to 86,000 people by 2036, according to the American Hospital Association.

The Bank of America report found that small businesses, defined as healthcare offices with fewer than 20 employees, are seeing the strongest rebound growth. For patients, this might result in more available appointments with specialists and private practice doctors.

Many small businesses hired more full-time healthcare workers instead of temporary contractors in February 2024 compared to February 2023, according to Bank of America.

Still, patients will likely still feel the consequences of labor gaps when they visit the hospitals and long-term care facilitates.

Longer ER stays, for example, are an indicator that hospitals are “understaffed or overcrowded,” according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

There has also slower labor recovery at long-term care facilities. This could lead to longer patient waitlists for residential care.

A report published in March from the nonprofit Peterson Center on Healthcare and KFF shows that the number of people in skilled nursing jobs, retirement care jobs, and roles that provide care for people with developmental disabilities are still below pre-pandemic levels.

Burnout and low pay mean slow jobs recovery
The Bank of America report suggests that a lack of wage growth could be contributing to doctor and nurse shortages. Healthcare workers have labor-intensive jobs, and low pay could be making it more difficult for hospitals and care facilities to attract employees, the report found.

Average wages for healthcare workers have increased overall since the beginning of the pandemic, but KFF said this could be because fewer low-wage workers are employed in industry.

A 2023 National Institute of Health study found that inadequate pay is the most frequently cited reason employees give for burnout and leaving medicine.

Despite the slow gains, the Bank of America’s report said it’s a good sign that healthcare facilities appear to be hiring more full-time workers in 2024.

“Our finding that contract payments are easing indicates that firms may be under less pressure from labor shortages,” the report said. “This could imply normalizing employment growth ahead.” Business Insider

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