WARWICK – A workforce shortage continues to plague Rhode Island’s health care sector as residents find access to primary care limited while practices struggle to fill positions, the panelists at the Providence Business News 2022 Fall Health Care Summit discussed Thursday.
The summit, held at the Crowne Plaza Providence-Warwick, featured two panels of experts that touched on several topics concerning health care in the state, from preparedness and accessibility to equity and education. But one thing that panelists agreed on is that the workforce shortage that has become evident nationwide in the last two years is still a concern in Rhode Island.
The state is seeing a resource shortage of about 20%, which mirrors national trends, said Corey McCarty, senior vice president and general manager of CCA Health Rhode Island. McCarty was joined on the second panel by Dr. Sri Adusumalli, senior medical director for Enterprise Virtual Care for CVS Health Corp.; Melissa Husband, chief of staff at Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island; and Dr. Thomas Meehan, program director of the physician assistant studies program at Johnson & Wales University.
Fatigue, burnout and a lack of competitive salaries are some of the factors driving workers from the field, which is not only finding it difficult to attract professionals but also to retain them. Another issue driving people – and women in particular – away from health care is child care accessibility, said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, inaugural director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health.
“This was a problem before the pandemic, but the pandemic accelerated this,” Nuzzo said. “I don’t know that we’re going to get serious about fixing the workforce unless we also address the child care issue.”
Nuzzo spoke during the first panel discussion of the summit, which included Dr. Kirsten Anderson, senior medical director for New England at CVS Health Corp./Aetna; Dr. LouAnne Giangreco, senior medical director at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island; Dr. Peter Hollmann, chief medical officer of Brown Medicine; Dr. Alexis Kearney, consultant medical director at R.I. Department of Health; and Dr. Claire Levesque, chief medical officer of commercial products at Point 32 Health, the parent company of Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
While Levesque said there is no “quick fix” to the workforce shortage, there are steps companies can take to look more competitive and retain their workers. In some cases, this means offering the possibility to continue to work remotely, providing more training opportunities, offering peer and mental health support and more financial incentives such as tuition reimbursement.
But fighting the shortage is not enough. The state must expand the number of practitioners available. Speakers from both panels stressed a concerning lack of primary care, which is often inaccessible to the public. Currently, it can take as long as six months for a Rhode Island resident to find a primary care provider, McCarty said.
The panelists said many of these challenges represent an even larger obstacle for people of color, who struggle to access expensive academic programs and reach high-paying roles. The panelists spoke about health care equity and the importance of expanding accessibility. The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the approach to health care, expanding the use of virtual care to the point that it is now often an expectation for patients, Adusumalli said. And while telemedicine might never replace in-person care, it can create new “access point of care” that did not exist before.
The panelists also discussed the COVID-19 pandemic, which has many wondering whether it is still a pressing concern. And while President Joseph Biden has declared the COVID-19 pandemic over in the U.S., some of the panelists argued that the conversation is more complex than that.
“Pandemics do not end with a presidential statement or with a parade,” Anderson said. “Pandemics end when the disease has a predictable course and when society moves on to other concerns.”
According to Anderson, the U.S. is on a trajectory to see about 150,000 deaths from COVID-19 this year. And while the country has made significant progress in handling the virus, many at Thursday’s summit encouraged the public not to let down their guard. The panelists urged the public to get booster shots, get tested when showing symptoms, continue to practice good hygiene. In particular, the state should focus on administering booster shots to the elderly population and to vulnerable populations, the panelists added.
Nationwide, vaccination rates have dropped drastically, with a booster uptake at around 10%, said Anderson. The numbers look better in Rhode Island, where about 75%-80% of the population has been vaccinated and the booster uptake is about 56%, said Kearney, adding there is still a “huge way to go.”
With winter approaching, the public should expect to see a spike in not only COVID-19 but also other respiratory viruses, said Nuzzo. This only increases the importance getting COVID-19 booster shots and flu shots.
“Every part of the health care system has to keep pushing out this message,” said Levesque.
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