The United States is facing a staggering shortage of skilled healthcare professionals. According to a recent survey by Governing.com, nearly half of state and local healthcare workers left their positions between 2017 and 2021, with a staggering 74% of workers under the age of 35 leaving the public health sector during that same time period. This alarming trend has left health departments across the country struggling to recruit and retain qualified personnel to fill critical positions in the field.
Director of the Center for Public Health Practice, Shandy Dearth, laments the low pay that often characterizes public health jobs, which, in combination with stringent degree requirements, makes it difficult to attract and retain talent. Compounding this issue, public health workers are finding more lucrative opportunities in the private sector, where compensation is often higher.
While health departments have received a boost in federal funding in the wake of COVID-19, these resources eventually dry up, leaving many departments underfunded and understaffed. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has initiated grant programs to help local health departments build up their infrastructure, but these benefits primarily benefit larger departments. Other health departments are left to contend with chronic funding shortfalls.
Indiana, in particular, has long ranked below other states in per-capita funding for public health. However, public health workers play a critical role in ensuring the safety and well-being of the public by inspecting grocery stores and restaurants, testing air and water quality following environmental disasters, and running vaccination clinics to protect children from infectious diseases.
Dearth is calling on the legislature to pass Senate Bill 4, which would enable local health departments to enter into contracts or approve grants for core health services. She also suggests that student loan forgiveness for healthcare workers entering the profession may help alleviate some of the financial pressures that have driven many professionals away from the field. As summer approaches, it is vital that we act quickly to address the shortage of skilled public health workers and ensure that our communities remain healthy and safe.