Europe Grapples With Acute Healthcare Worker Shortage

We look at the EU’s comprehensive plan to address labour shortages and enhance workforce resilience as the continent's healthcare system struggles

Europe is facing an acute shortage of healthcare workers in 2024. From nurses to doctors, the deficit is being felt across the continent, posing significant challenges to the delivery of quality care. This shortage, exacerbated by various factors, threatens to strain healthcare systems already grappling with the aftermath of a global pandemic.

Recent research conducted by the European Commission (EC) indicates that by 2030, the demand for healthcare workers in the European Union (EU) could surpass the supply by as much as 1.3 million professionals. This could undermine the effectiveness of healthcare services, leading to longer waiting times, decreased quality of care and increased strain on existing staff.

“The health workforce crisis in Europe is no longer a looming threat – it is here and now. Health providers and workers across our region are clamouring for help and support,” says Dr Hans Kluge, Word Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for Europe. “The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility of health systems and the importance of a robust and resilient health workforce. We cannot wait any longer to address the pressing challenges facing our health workforce.”

The reasons behind this shortfall are complex. One factor is an ageing population, coupled with an ageing healthcare workforce. As more healthcare professionals retire, the gap between supply and demand widens. 

Additionally, migration patterns within Europe have led to uneven distribution, with some regions experiencing acute shortages, while others struggle to utilise their workforce effectively.

Healthcare workers burnt out after COVID-19 pandemic

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the issue. The unprecedented demands placed on healthcare systems accelerated burnout among existing staff and dissuaded potential recruits from entering the field. 

According to a study by the WHO, one in three healthcare workers in Europe reported experiencing symptoms of burnout during the height of the pandemic.

The consequences of this shortage are already being felt across the continent. In the UK, for example, the proportion of roles filled by non-UK nationals has risen to a record high, according to analysis of NHS Digital figures. 

Of the 1,282,623 full-time equivalent hospital and community health service staff in England in September 2023 whose nationality was known, 20.4% were non-UK nationals. This has led to concerns about sustainability and dependency on foreign labour. 

Similarly, hospitals in Italy and Spain are struggling to maintain adequate staffing levels, with reports of overworked healthcare professionals becoming increasingly common. 

This situation prompted Kluge to warn that “there is no health without a health workforce.” 

Shortfall of 1.8m healthcare workers 

A WHO report drawing on data from 50 countries shows the extent of the EU’s health workforce shortage. 

“We could face a crippling shortage of nearly 1.8 million healthcare workers, and the numbers are climbing,” Kluge told the European Health Forum Gastein in September 2023. “In some countries there are just 2.4 doctors for every 1,000 people. That’s not a gap. It’s a gulf,” he adds. 

Research by the European Employment Service unit at the European Labour Authority, found that a shortage of specialist medical practitioners has been identified in 16 out of the 31 countries it is investigating, according to the British Medical Journal.

In 15 countries there are shortages of nursing professionals, healthcare assistants and general medical practitioners. In 11 countries there are shortages of home based care workers and in about half of the countries researched the shortages are identified as severe.

EU action plan to tackle labour shortages

While healthcare staff shortages are a pressing problem, they are not a new one. To tackle the issue, the EC presented an action plan in March 2024 on how it will tackle labour and skills shortages and proposes to work together with member States and social partners to address these issues over the coming months and years. 

“For almost a decade, labour and skills shortages have been increasing in all member States,” the EC said in a statement. “These shortages are driven by demographic shifts, the demand for new skills linked to technological developments, the drive to develop further our own industrial sectors, defence and security needs and challenges related to working conditions in some sectors and locations.”

The EC said it had identified 42 ‘shortage' occupations, with some differences across the member states.

Its plan sets out actions in five areas to be implemented “swiftly” at the EU, national, and social-partners' level. 

These are: 

  • Supporting the activation of underrepresented people in the labour market
  • Providing support for skills development
  • Training and education
  • Improving working conditions in certain sectors
  • Improving fair intra-EU mobility for workers and learners 
  • Attracting talent from outside the EU.

It says it has committed to investing €65bn in: skills programmes; vocational excellence centres; skills partnerships; sick leave policy analysis; pension reform analysis; peer reviewing of national approaches to addressing psycho-social risks at work.

Skills shortages set to continue to rise 

Labour and skills shortages are expected to continue rising over the coming decades, predominantly thanks to demographic change and the increase in the demand for workers with specific skills, for instance, required for the digital and green transitions.

EC EVP and Chair of the Commissioner’s Group, Valdis Dombrovskis, says: “We are proposing to work together with member states and social partners to bring more people into the labour market, support skills development and better working conditions, as well as attract skilled talent from outside the EU. 

“At the same time, we want to promote greater internal mobility within the EU’s labour market, while preserving workers’ rights and regional development.”

As Europe confronts the challenge, concerted efforts and substantial investments are imperative. Collaboration between member states, social partners and the EU will be essential in devising and implementing effective measures to bolster the healthcare workforce and safeguard the future of healthcare delivery. 

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