By 2020 Europe may be short of two million healthcare workers

Today, healthcare professions make up ten percent Europe’s workforce. The EU Commission calculates dramatic shortages in healthcare provision in the next decade unless countermeasures are taken now. Thus, at this year’s European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG), held in October in Bad Hofgastein, Austria, international experts discussed ways to make health employment more attractive.

About 600 decision makers in health policy, research, and science and in...
About 600 decision makers in health policy, research, and science and in patients’ organisations from over 40 countries attended EHFG, the EU’s most important health policy congress (Credit: Neumayr/MMV)

The statistics are alarming. ‘Estimates point to a shortage of one million health professionals in the EU by 2020, and this is likely to reach two million if other employees in the healthcare sector are accounted for,’ said Katja Neubauer, Team Leader Health Strategy and Health Systems in the EU Commission (DG for Health and Consumers), speaking at the EHFG. The forecasts predict a shortage of 600,000 workers in nursing alone by 2020 and a shortage of 230,000 physicians.

Experts said the big challenge for our healthcare systems is the steady increase in life expectancy, with the associated need for more care, and the urgent task of successfully recruiting and retaining health professionals.

Katja Neubauer noted that the healthcare system is already an important driver for new jobs in Europe and could become even more so in the future: ‘Healthcare provides employment for around 10% of the EU workforce. It is one of the most innovative sectors and could drive the creation of new jobs.’

Initiatives to prevent a healthcare crisis

‘In a worst case scenario,’ she warned, ‘the threatened shortage of professionals in the healthcare sector could mean that about 15 percent of necessary care for patients could not be met.’

The effect of this gap in supply would vary from one individual EU member state to another. The poorer Member States might find it more difficult to retain a sufficient number of health professionals making the shortage of professionals all the more acute in these countries.

A number of activities are underway at the European level to address this and the other challenges facing the European health workforce. In 2008 the EU Commission issued its Green Paper on the European Workforce for Health, thus placing the topic on the European agenda. As part of the Europe 2020 Strategy to overcome the crisis and prepare the EU economy for the next decade, one of the flagship initiatives will be to set an agenda for new skills and jobs. Health professions will be included in these efforts. And at the initiative of the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a conference of ministers was recently held on health personnel issues of the future and formulated a number of recommendations.

Making the professions more appealing

Health professions and the work environment in patient care must be made more appealing. Experts call this a central point for preventing a genuine crisis in healthcare provision. ‘Evidence suggests that the work environment not only constitutes an important factor in the recruitment and retention of health workers, its characteristics also affect the quality of care, both directly and indirectly,’ said expert Christiane Wiskow (Basel, CH). ‘Examples of what can be done to improve the quality of the work environment in the health sector include policy approaches to promote a healthy balance between family life and work, and better protection of workers’ health.’
With this approach, the sector aims to discourage health workers from switching to other occupations and hopes to recruit new people for health professions and prepare this body of skilled workers for the challenges of the future.

Expert: ‘Worries about quantity should not lead us to neglect quality’

During discussions in Gastein, experts pointed out that it is essential not only that there is a sufficient number of workers available in healthcare but also that those workers deliver quality performance. The expectations of healthcare systems on the part of patients and society in general have risen in recent years. The use of innovative technologies and complex processes increases the need for regulation, emphasised Dr Edwin Borman (UK). ‘The world has learned the lesson that failures in regulation, most recently in the finance sector, can be very costly. In the healthcare sector, these costs are counted in lives damaged or lost. Ensuring high quality in the delivery of healthcare services is a key challenge of healthcare regulation. If we fail to deliver, we shall be as popular as bankers. If we deliver the necessary changes, a new professionalism will characterise the future of healthcare.’


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