Vice President Kamala Harris is shown speaking with healthcare workers during a tour of the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco on April 21. File Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo
May 23 (UPI) -- Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday praised healthcare workers for sacrifices made during the COVID-19 pandemic and called for more help to assist them with burnout and other mental health issues.
During an appearance at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., Harris said the duties performed daily by its doctors, nurses and staff, especially during the pandemic, illustrated the heavy burden of responsibilities faced by the nation's healthcare workforce.
"Your compassion, I truly believe, is a light in the midst of darkness, and you do so much to take care of your patients in their time of need," she said. "Which is why I am here to say we need to do a better job of taking care of you."
She touted the administration's efforts to "transform how mental heath is understood" with an ambitious national mental health program to be funded under President Joe Biden's $6 trillion fiscal 2023 budget request revealed in March.
Biden in this year's State of the Union address unveiled a new strategy to address what he called the national mental health crisis, including new resources to help healthcare workers with burnout.
"You deserve access to the mental healthcare that you need," Harris told the Children's Hospital workers.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy also spoke at event after issuing a new advisory highlighting "the urgent need to address the health worker burnout crisis across the country."
Murthy said the situation is grim among those charged with dispensing healthcare to Americans.
"People are really struggling," he said. "After two years of COVID-19, and after more than 1 million precious lives lost, the people that we all turn to to keep us safe, to comfort us and to help us heal ... they have been pushed to their limits."
In meeting with frontline healthcare workers and asking them to describe how they're feeling, "they use words like 'burned out,' 'traumatized,' 'exhausted,' 'helpless' and 'heartbroken,'" Murthy said.
They don't see "how the healthcare workforce can continue like this," he said, adding that if the nation fails to address this, "we will place our nation's health at increasing risk."
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Academy of Medicine found that burnout had reached "crisis levels" among the U.S. health workforce, with 35% to 54% of nurses and physicians and 45% to 60% of medical students and residents reporting symptoms of burnout.
Meanwhile, experts warn, the country's dependence on a well-functioning healthcare workforce will only continue to grow as more 500,000 registered nurses are expected to retire by the end of this year.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected the need for 1.1 million new registered nurses across the United States, while a Mercer Health Care Market Analysis report forecast a national shortage within five years of more than 3 million low-wage health workers, who consist predominantly of women of color.
Physician demand will also continue to grow faster than supply. The Association of American Medical Colleges has projected a shortage of between 54,100 and 139,000 physicians by 2033, with the most alarming gaps in primary care and rural communities.
The surgeon general recommended a "whole-of-society approach" to address what he called "systems-level challenges associated with organizational culture, policy, regulations, information technology, financial incentives and health inequities."
At the top of the list, Murthy said, is a commitment to "never again" expect health workers "to work under the unsafe conditions that many of them faced during the pandemic."
Instead, a priority must be placed on protecting them from workplace violence that "must be supported by legislation," while health systems must ensure that workers are "adequately trained for all scenarios and provided with a robust supply of personal protective equipment."