Europe’s health workforce is sick and tired — and it’s also aging.
That’s the warning issued by the World Health Organization’s European office in a landmark report published on Wednesday.
The report examines the state of the health and care workforce in the WHO European Region, which spans 53 countries. The picture — with the available data — is worrisome.
“All countries of the WHO European Region face severe problems related to their health and care workforce,” states 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 its own.”
Many countries face staff shortages, and the situation is concerning as efforts to replace retiring health care workers are “suboptimal,” the report says. Given all this, the WHO/Europe is calling on countries to raise their game on training, recruiting and retaining workers — because things are likely to get worse.
“Further efforts to improve retention will be needed to tackle an expected increase in people leaving the workforce due to COVID-19-related burnout, ill health and general dissatisfaction. Such efforts are fundamentally important to maintaining sufficient numbers of health workers to cope with increasing backlogs due to the pandemic,” the authors write.
Failure to address the many pressures on the workforce — including staff shortages, unattractive working conditions, and a lack of strategic planning — could lead to dire consequences, warns Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe.
“All of these threats represent a ticking time bomb which, if not addressed, is likely to lead to poor health outcomes across the board, long waiting times for treatment, many preventable deaths, and potentially even health system collapse,” Kluge said in a statement.
Age is (not) just a number
Europe’s health and care workforce is growing older, and the figures are especially staggering when it comes to doctors.
In 13 of the 44 countries with available data, at least 40 percent of doctors are aged 55 or older. By comparison, of the 36 countries with such data for nurses, only four have a workforce in which 40 percent of the nurses are 55 or older.
Nowhere is the maturing of the physician workforce as pressing as in Italy, where over 56 percent of doctors are aged 55 or older. Elsewhere in the EU, the aging physician workforce is also notably high in Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Lithuania.
“These statistics point to important replacement needs in the coming decade,” the report states.
EU countries produce varying numbers of graduates in health care fields. But the challenge — exacerbated by the pandemic — is also in retaining them. The authors cite the examples of doctors and nurses from Romania moving to work in higher-income countries like France, Italy and Spain.
The report’s recommendations to tackle the many challenges in the health and care workforce include creating working conditions that promote a healthy work-life balance to both attract and retain workers, as well as bolstering the use of digital tools to support the workforce.
But the solution is still not as simple as retaining health care workers — though that helps. It’s also key to see where they go, and what they do.
“Most countries struggle with the problem of eliminating so-called medical deserts, which are areas where the population has insufficient access to [health care workers] and to health services. These tend to be in rural, remote or isolated areas, but they also exist in some urban settings, often in zones of poverty,” the authors write.
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