by | October 5, 2023 | Opinion

The EU’s healthcare workforce in crisis: health systems are “underprepared, understaffed and face underinvestment”

This year’s European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG) focused on health systems in crisis, facing shockwaves and fatigue. One of the current challenges health systems are facing is the healthcare workforce crisis. As highlighted by the OECD, health systems are “underprepared, understaffed and face underinvestment”, a phrasing that was used by several speakers. The crisis was even described as a “ticking time bomb”. 

The urgency to act 

In the first plenary session, health systems in crisis, EHFG President Clemens Martin Auer mentioned that should the healthcare workforce crisis not be properly address, public health systems would simply collapse. This set the tone for the urgency to address the challenges that health workers are facing, from workforce shortages to poor working conditions, skills needs, chronic fatigue and burnout after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The workforce crisis is related to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the deaths it has caused, but not only. WHO’s Tomas Zapata highlighted that there were for main drivers of this crisis: globalisation, digitalisation, demographic changes and climate change. As mentioned in a related EuroHealth article, “Countering the great resignation of health and care workers”, the workforce has seen a wave of retirements. Mobility and outward migration are significant factors in this crisis, resulting in scarcity of workforce in some areas of Europe, as highlighted by Corinne Hinlopen (Wemos) in a session on workforce mobility. Finally, resignation due to poor working conditions and lack of work-life balance have also been observed. 

Supporting the healthcare workforce 

Several sessions, including a dedicated plenary, focused on the urgency to tackle this crisis. Recommendations on how to address these challenges and support the healthcare workforce in adapting to these trends were shared by speakers. Particularly, speakers mentioned that recruiting more workers should not be the only measure implemented to tackle the issue. We need to rethink and strengthen the entire health system to address the different crises the workforce is facing. It is key to focus on building staff retention, as also highlighted in the EuroHealth article, by: 

  • Improving working conditions (i.e., reducing workload); 
  • Offering fair remuneration; 
  • Protecting healthcare workers against violence;  
  • Providing care for healthcare workers, especially mental health support; 
  • Increasing the focus on rural, remote and underserved areas; 
  • Improving the data on the healthcare workforce; 
  • Changing employment and recruitment strategies by improving planning and forecasting of workforce.  

Reskilling and upskilling 

EHFG 2023 sessions related to the healthcare workforce also focused on the necessary digital and green transitions. On Tuesday, a session focused on AI and the healthcare workforce. This session also focused on the need to integrate AI and other digital trainings in the curricula for the future healthcare workers. However, lifelong learning and training possibilities should also be foreseen for the existing workforce. Another session on net-zero healthcare systems highlighted that the green and sustainable transition is also a trend that the workforce and health systems will need to adapt to, leading to new training needs. Here, the Be Well project coordinated by EHMA was mentioned, as it aims at preparing a strategy on upskilling and reskilling the European healthcare workforce to cope with future challenges and evolving societal expectations, including green and digital skills. 

A Belgian presidency focusing on the healthcare workforce? 

All speakers agreed on the urgency to act on the challenge of the healthcare workforce. Furthermore, the upcoming Belgian Presidency of the EU has identified the workforce crisis as a possible key priority, as mentioned by Lieven de Raedt, advisor for the Belgian health ministry, in the plenary session dedicated to the healthcare workforce. Belgium is also planning to place heath high on the political agenda during its presidency. Therefore, there is hope that this crisis is considered as high priority in the run-up to the EU elections. 

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