One million nurses will retire by 2030. We need to prepare for it

Originally published by The Washington Examiner– May 28, 2020

Healthcare professionals across the globe have emerged as the true heroes of the COVID-19 crisis. Through a mission of care and compassion, they deliver urgent medical support for those battling the disease. Their value to the improvement of health outcomes has been well documented. But it, of course, has taken on a new meaning in recent weeks.

The startling pandemic we’re living through has unearthed an issue that’s been plaguing the healthcare industry for decades: the growing skills gap. This problem (while broadly discussed, dissected, and debated for generations) is currently affecting us.

In fact, the coronavirus is showing all dimensions of the political spectrum that we can’t afford to just keep talking about our nation’s skills gap when it comes to healthcare. We need to solve it — once and for all. Career education programs provide an opportunity to do just that.

According to some studies, our country should expect a shortage of between 40,800 and 104,900 physicians by 2030. Others predict that a million nurses will retire within this same time frame. And while regional nursing shortages are currently affecting healthcare systems across the country, states such as California, Texas, South Carolina, and New Jersey expect to have shortages of at least 10,000 registered nurses within this decade.

A string of recent events highlights the myriad of ways in which the growing healthcare skills gap is affecting communities: State and local officials in multiple states are pleading with licensed healthcare professionals from other states to help with the demand.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have temporarily relaxed some federal regulations, facilitating clinicians’ ability to practice across state lines. And some programs, including those at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, the University of Illinois College of Medicine, and the University of Vermont, have allowed medical and senior nursing students to graduate early to join the front lines against the virus.

This sense of urgency is indeed necessary. But we also need to invest this same degree of diligence to exposing our youngest students to the amazing benefits a career in healthcare can provide. Through career education programs across the country, middle and high schoolers have the chance to learn everything about the healthcare industry — from top to bottom.

Students can take online classes in a broad range of healthcare pathways, such as sports medicine, medical transcription, or billing and coding. They can examine all facets of the industry — from patient care to behind-the-scenes digital work. Some high school students can even work towards earning gold-standard industry certifications such as the Certified Medical Assistant or Certified Nursing Assistant credentials. These early wins can help serve as stepping stones for advanced careers in medicine, nursing, and many other disciplines within the healthcare industry.

Coupled with preparation for a competitive workforce, some studies suggest that career-focused opportunities help keep students engaged long after high school graduation. Ninety-five percent of career and technical education students graduate from high school, a rate that’s higher than the national average. And more than 35% of them pursue careers in healthcare. This growing body of evidence highlights career education as a valuable tool in closing the skills gap.

My heart fills with pride every time I scroll through my social media feed and see tributes to my healthcare colleagues. While this outpouring of support is well deserved, it is also long overdue. Their contributions shouldn’t only be acknowledged during times of crisis.

That’s why I urge more federal, state, and local officials, community leaders, and families to support the career education programs in their state. Only a bipartisan, multistate coalition will help us succeed in this regard. And the investments that we make in our students today will protect their future and ours.

I have no doubt that we will get through the current pandemic stronger than ever, and one day, the coronavirus will be a thing of the past. But in the meantime, we must be proactive in using the resources we have to fix our skills gap. The time to do this important work is now.

Dr. Sherri Wilson is the health careers program director at K12 Inc. She earned a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Johns Hopkins University, a Master of Arts degree in public administration from Seton Hall University, and a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from Hampton University.

To learn more about K12 Inc. visit, https://www.k12.com/

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