Health Workforce Research Center Directors Identify Strategies to Ensure and Sustain Health Workforce During COVID-19 Pandemic

Bianca Frogner headshot.Bianca K. Frogner, PhD, Director of the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University of Washington (UW) joins six other directors of privately and publicly funded health workforce research centers to highlight state strategies to ensure and sustain the health workforce to meet patient needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The article, “Ensuring and Sustaining a Pandemic Workforce,” was published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.

This article is the second one published in the journal that brings the collective experience of these directors on the health workforce. In the first article, published on February 13, 2020, Dr. Frogner and colleagues voiced their concern about how state regulations governing the practice of many health care professionals are resulting in unwanted and counterproductive outcomes for patients. The barriers identified in their first article are now more evident than ever as state and health system leaders seek to quickly ramp up their health workforce to meet the surge of patient demand from COVID-19.

State and health system leaders are learning from one another and working together to remove bureaucratic hurdles to mobilize and flex the health workforce. One common strategy being deployed across states is making requests under the Social Security Act Section 1135 for the authority to waive requirements during emergencies, which allows states greater flexibility in the deployment of health care workers. Another strategy is working with licensing boards to reinstate recently expired licenses through temporary extensions to encourage retired health professionals to re-enter the workforce. Dr. Frogner and colleagues also recognized efforts by health professional societies, health care educators, and accreditors to find education and training solutions to bolster the health workforce. These include accelerating education programs for essential workers such as respiratory therapists, retraining health care workers such as physical therapists who have seen reduced clinical volume to provide needed care, redeploying health professional students to assist in medical tasks to free up other clinicians, and engaging social workers and community health workers to address social needs. As non-COVID-19 patients still require ongoing care, health care workers are increasingly turning to telehealth to deliver care, which has become easier with, for example, the removal of supervision of requirements by insurers.

The authors call on leaders to take swift action to expand and sustain the health workforce to help our country meet the needs of patients during this COVID-19 pandemic, and to evaluate these changes to inform any future response to pandemics.

This perspective piece complements additional efforts by Dr. Frogner and her team to: examine the supply of respiratory therapists and health system concerns related to surging this workforce to meet patient demand; estimate the extent to which health care workers may be at risk for contracting COVID-19: and identify the regulatory barriers and creative efforts by states to modernize the scope of practice of health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Frogner is Associate Professor in the UW Department of Family Medicine in the School of Medicine.