The worsening health workforce crisis in Europe – POLITICO

Europe’s health workers are sick and tired — and they are also ageing.

This is the warning issued by the European office of the World Health Organization in a landmark report published on Wednesday.

The report examines the state of the health and care workforce in the WHO European Region, which covers 53 countries. The picture – with the available data – is worrying.

“All countries in the WHO European Region are facing serious challenges related to their health and care workforce,” says the report, which focuses on doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists , pharmacists and physiotherapists. “These are not new challenges, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems and created some of them.”

Many countries are facing staff shortages, and the situation is concerning because efforts to replace retiring health workers are “suboptimal”, the report says. Given all this, WHO/Europe is calling on countries to up their game when it comes to training, recruiting and retaining workers, because things are likely to get worse.

“Additional efforts to improve retention will be needed to cope with an expected increase in the number of people leaving the labor market due to COVID-19-related burnout, poor health and general dissatisfaction. Such efforts are fundamentally important to maintaining a sufficient number of health workers to deal with growing backlogs due to the pandemic,” the authors write.

Failure to respond to the many pressures on the workforce – including staff shortages, unattractive working conditions and lack of strategic planning – could have disastrous consequences, warns Hans Kluge, regional director of WHO for Europe.

“All of these threats represent a ticking time bomb that, if left untreated, is likely to lead to poor health outcomes in all areas, long waiting times for treatment, many preventable deaths and potentially even the collapse of the healthcare system,” Kluge said in a statement.

Age is (not) just a number

The health and care workforce in Europe is ageing, and the numbers are particularly staggering when it comes to doctors.

In 13 of the 44 countries for which data are available, at least 40% of doctors are aged 55 or over. By comparison, of the 36 countries with such data for nurses, only four have a workforce in which 40% of nurses are 55 or older.

Nowhere is the maturation of the medical workforce more pressing than in Italy, where more than 56% of physicians are aged 55 or older. Elsewhere in the EU, the aging of the medical workforce is also particularly high in Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Lithuania.

“These statistics indicate significant replacement needs over the next decade,” the report said.

EU countries produce varying numbers of graduates in health fields. But the challenge — exacerbated by the pandemic — is also to retain them. The authors cite examples of Romanian doctors and nurses leaving to work in higher-income countries such as France, Italy and Spain.

The report’s recommendations to address the many challenges facing health and care workers include creating working conditions that promote a healthy work-life balance to attract and retain workers, as well as strengthening the use of digital tools to support staff.

But the solution is still not as simple as retaining healthcare workers – although that helps. It is also essential to see where they are going and what they are doing.

“Most countries are grappling with the problem of eliminating so-called medical deserts, which are areas where the population does not have sufficient access to [health care workers] and health services. These tend to be in rural, remote, or isolated areas, but they also exist in some urban settings, often in areas of poverty,” the authors write.

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Mary I. Bruner