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The Doctor Is Out; Healthcare Faces Workforce Shortage

When it comes to healthcare, 2020 continues to be a bitter pill – and people in the industry are reporting it could get worse.

A nation already staggering from the COVID-19 pandemic also faces a shortage of healthcare providers in all areas, from family physicians, to dentists, to nurses and beyond.

“This is a growing concern that everyone should be aware of,” says Dr. Cathy Hung (, an oral surgeon and author of Pulling Wisdom: Filling Gaps of Cross-Cultural Communication for Healthcare Providers.

In many cases, the pandemic and the shortage of healthcare professionals are connected. Some older physicians, worried that they were especially susceptible to COVID-19, decided to speed up their retirements.

Beyond that, Hung says, women in healthcare professions, like women in other careers, have been more likely than men to exit the workforce to care for children after schools went remote.

Meanwhile, the remaining doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals still on the job also risk becoming overworked and overburdened, Hung says.

“And it affects so much more than family physicians or medical specialists,” she says. “You are starting to see a lack of the needed numbers of dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants, something that doesn’t always get as much attention. An alarming number of people are leaving the profession.”

Finding replacements is proving difficult. A recent American Dental Association survey showed that more than half of dental offices reported it is “extremely or very challenging” to recruit dental hygienists. Just over 40 percent say the same about dental assistants, and about 30 percent say that’s true for dentists as well.

Hung says the dearth of dental hygienists is especially significant.

“If we are losing the workforce who provide much of the preventive care, there will be more financial burden down the line for more terminal dental care, loss of dentition, etc,” she says. “Insurance reimbursement also has gone down each year for the providers. So what you are beginning to see is more work, less compensation, and more patient dissatisfaction. Ultimately, patients suffer in the long run.”

Although the pandemic may be exacerbating the situation, the shortage of healthcare workers has been a concern for more than a decade. Contributing factors include an aging population that requires more health services; an aging healthcare workforce with many workers retiring; and increases in chronic diseases, according to the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

So, what are ways the problem is being addressed?

  • Some of the gaps with physicians could be filled by physician assistants and nurse practitioners, and a movement is afoot  to remove some restrictions on what they are allowed to do. But physician groups, such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, are uncomfortable with that idea because physician assistants and nurse practitioners don’t have the same extensive education and training physicians do.
  • Healthcare workers will need to find ways to become more efficient. “Telehealth can help some, but there need to be other ways to improve efficiency,” Hung says. “Most medical care can’t be handled remotely.”
  • In some parts of the country, an effort is being made to speed up training for doctors and nurses. As just one example, two years ago the Medical University of South Carolina added a three-year medical degree to try to accelerate the education for a new generation of physicians.

“Some of these efforts can get us headed in the right direction,” Hung says. “But there’s no doubt we are behind where we need to be and we must find ways to turn things around. Our patients’ health depends on it.”

About Dr. Cathy Hung, DDS

Dr. Cathy Hung (, author of Pulling Wisdom: Filling Gaps of Cross-Cultural Communication for Healthcare Providers, is a board-certified oral and maxillofacial surgeon with more than 15 years of clinical experience.

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