Every year, the U.S. government invests millions of dollars to train military medics to serve overseas. Yet too often, when these men and women return to the U.S. and transition out of service, our government and civilian healthcare institutions fail to recognize—and put to work—their hard-won knowledge and skills. And Americans are paying the price of this failure.
Largely, this is due to antiquated credentialing and licensing requirements that have not adapted to serve the modern workforce. The result is that even as the U.S. faces an escalating healthcare worker shortage, we are turning away massive numbers of potentially qualified public servants. People who could step in immediately to help stabilize our health system. People who could also become the foundation for future healthcare delivery.
We are at a breaking point. Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, the smoldering healthcare worker shortage in the United States is now threatening to burn down the house of medicine. The problem is so real that within the next five years, the U.S. will face a shortage of more than 3.2 million entry-level essential healthcare workers—including medical assistants, home health aides, and nursing assistants. Nearly 50% of nurses are over 50 years old, and a recent report indicated that 29% of RNs say they are likely to leave their current role in direct patient care. The U.S. needs to hire at least 200,000 nurses per year just to match increased demand.
My teams feel this pain every day in our busy, urban Emergency Department. But the situation is even worse in our rural communities where critical access hospitals that often experience high poverty rates are grossly underserved. According to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, more than 15 million Americans live in medically underserved areas. It is time to empower our veterans with medical skills to continue serving their communities on the homefront.
The recent passage of the Supporting Education Recognition for Veterans during Emergencies Act (SERVE Act), which aims to facilitate the medical credentialing and hiring of veterans with healthcare experience gained in the military, may help to temper some of that. The SERVE Act is a small step that helps transitioning enlisted medical personnel continue to work and develop professionally while still working within the government. With its requirement that the VA implement a program to train and certify veterans who served in medical fields to work as intermediate care technicians, or ICTs, the Act will increase the pool of skilled workers available to healthcare organizations. By credentialing Army medics who honed skills on the battlefield, Air Force paramedics who rescued injured personnel in combat, or Navy corpsmen who aided in emergency surgeries on battleships, we can dramatically increase the number of skilled workers available to relieve pressure on a struggling healthcare system.
Veterans will bring a wealth of experience and a range of perspectives to the industry, thanks in part to their diverse backgrounds: In 2020, 31% of active duty members identified as a racial minority, and 25% were from rural America. Such knowledge and experience can help improve the cultural competency of the healthcare industry, making it more accessible and responsive to the needs of diverse communities.
The SERVE Act is an important first step and looks good on paper. But to be clear, the only way it will impact the health of Americans is if the Department of Veterans Affairs acts swiftly to implement the Act, and only if the civilian health sector has the courage to implement similar programs at scale. Expanding this type of program into the civilian sector will improve health system resilience to pandemics, strengthen the healthcare labor market, give our veterans high-value post-military jobs, and provide our community with the health providers they deserve. Best of all, these men and women know how to handle the stress and pressure of emergency situations, be that a tragedy or a pandemic.
I applaud Congress for finally passing the SERVE Act. And I applaud the VA for supporting an innovative transition program. Now it is time to make it happen; to demand that this great idea is more than just an idea. It’s time to turn this idea into a plan for action. It’s time to empower our veterans, to let them put their knowledge and medical skills to work to get stuff done within their communities and on the home front.