22 January 2024

Tackle the health workforce crisis

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Throughout Europe, the healthcare sector is experiencing a crisis. Doctors are taking to the streets to protest against untenable working conditions, excessive hours, and insufficient resources.

The pressing issue of health workforce shortages, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, demands immediate attention to prevent further escalation. Although the health workforce forms the backbone of resilient health systems, Europe is currently grappling with a shortage of 2 million healthcare professionals, as revealed in the recent OECD report on Health Systems Resilience in February 2023.

The strain on healthcare professionals intensified during the pandemic, but it is crucial to acknowledge that structural flaws pre-existed. Doctors must have lawful working conditions and safe staffing levels to ensure the sustainability of the healthcare system. Burnout is on the rise, accompanied by incidents of verbal and physical violence against healthcare workers, diverting precious time away from patient care. Medicine is losing its appeal as a lifelong profession, and if this trend continues, the health workforce will cease to function effectively.

The upcoming European Parliament elections provide a crucial opportunity to address the healthcare workforce crisis, as emphasised in the CPME election manifesto. Recognising the urgency, Belgium, as the new EU presidency, has prioritised the crisis on its agenda for the first time in over a decade, signaling a collective acknowledgment of the severity of the situation.

In November 2023, the Standing Committee of European Doctors took a significant step by adopting a policy providing recommendations to enhance the well-being of doctors across Europe. The policy aims to improve patient care, professional excellence, and overall job satisfaction by addressing challenges such as work-related stress, organisational culture, supportive working environments, burnout, and work-life balance.

To effectively tackle the healthcare workforce crisis, three key priorities must be highlighted:

  1. Urgent Action on Workforce Shortages: The scarcity of healthcare professionals demands immediate attention. Lowering training requirements or causing brain drain by contravening WHO’s ethical recruitment policies is not a sustainable solution. Collaboration among educational institutions, universities, employers, and ministries is necessary to make the medical profession more attractive and reduce deficits by investing in high-quality training and practice conditions.

  2. Set Minimum Capacity Benchmarks: Collaboration among national medical associations, the OECD, European Commission, and WHO-Europe is crucial for effective data collection. Setting minimum health workforce capacities through comprehensive data analysis ensures safe staffing levels, upholding high-quality patient care and universal health coverage.

  3. Focus on retention of Healthcare Professionals: Better retention achieved by investing in the well-being of healthcare professionals. Policies must address work-life balance, access to support services, mental health resources, professional development opportunities, and fair remuneration. A holistic approach fosters an environment where healthcare professionals feel valued and supported, contributing to higher job satisfaction, reduced burnout rates.

The time has come for comprehensive, cross-border solutions that prioritise the health and resilience of the medical workforce, ensuring a sustainable and effective healthcare future for all.

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