Expert Suggests Strategies to Sustain Health Workforce During COVID-19 Pandemic

In response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, state and health system leaders are working together to remove bureaucratic hurdles to mobilize and flex the health workforce.

Patricia (Polly) Pittman, PhD, director of the Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity at Milken Institute School of Public Health, joined six directors of privately and publicly funded health workforce research centers to author a new piece in the New England Journal of Medicine that highlights state strategies to ensure and sustain the health workforce to meet patient needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The authors call on leaders to take swift action to expand and sustain the health workforce to help the United States meet the needs of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic and to inform any future response to pandemics.

The perspective piece outlines several key points including:

  • State policy leaders, hospitals and health systems need to examine ways to surge and flex their workforce by reducing administrative burdens, suspending scope of practice requirements, creating “health corps,” and redeploying furloughed and underutilized health professionals.
  • Battling COVID-19 will require team work as health workers take on new roles. There is an urgency for retraining or cross-training health professionals, hospitals and practices are going to have to revise outdated workflows and task delegation protocols. As patients without COVID-19 will still require ongoing care, health care workers will increasingly need to turn to telehealth to deliver care.
  • Beyond the increase in capacity, the workforce must be sustained when workers are lost to infection, burnout or need to care for sick family members.
  • Students are an important source of workers for helping with the pandemic, and it is imperative to secure the future pipeline of the health workforce.

“Many of these strategies are being used by leading states, creating an important opportunity for cross-state learning," Pittman said. "At the same there is a critical coordinating function that the federal government must play. The Mullan Institute is further analyzing these state innovations and the role of the federal government in our mini webinar series “Emergency Workforce Policies to Address Covid 19.”

Pittman is a renowned expert in health workforce issues and policy, conducting research on health systems, recruitment of health professionals, and workforce innovations. The article, “Ensuring and Sustaining a Pandemic Workforce,” was published April 8 in the New England Journal of Medicine.