The cracks in health care talent pipelines existed before 2020 — the COVID-19 pandemic was just the final straw that broke the system. Two years into the pandemic, the reality of overworked health care workers hit the ceiling: doctors and nurses working overtime, health care workers quitting in unprecedented numbers and delays at local pharmacies due to a lack of technicians. Calls for more appropriate work hours and compensation were on the rise along with hospitalizations and new COVID-19 variants.

The cracks in the talent pipelines run deeper than working overtime. Analysis for talent shortages splits into two major categories: allied health care and primary health care. Surprising to most people, however, workers who are often overlooked may hold the key to a solution. Allied health care talent pipelines are frozen, and upskilling and reskilling programs can help thaw them.

The People Behind the Curtain

Many people mistakenly associate medical treatment with specialty doctors or nurses. Sickness and recovery is often associated with a doctor’s visit. However, the behind-the-scenes process of calling in and filling prescriptions or testing for illness while the patient sits in a separate room is often overlooked. Each of these tasks enable proper diagnosis and treatment for patients.

Solving the talent issue in health care rests on acknowledging each part of the medical process. Allied health care professionals make medical treatment possible. Pharmacy technicians make the prescription distribution system run smoothly. Phlebotomist technicians enable blood test systems to provide timely and effective results. Nursing assistants are crucial to the continuum of care in hospital by monitoring patients when doctors and nurses cannot. These jobs allow for the workday to continue and prevent bottlenecks for other health care professionals. These are the people behind the curtain that help support our medical system.

Many of these roles evolved in unexpected ways due to the pandemic. For example, pharmacy technicians were reskilled to distribute COVID-19 tests and vaccinations, and hospitality workers were reskilled to work as contract tracers. The health care industry needs to recognize the role of allied health workers and their crucial contributions to the daily patient experience and their efficient delivery of care.

Preskilling, Reskilling and Upskilling Our Support Systems

Building a more robust allied health workforce will likely result from multiple strategies executed together to focus on creating a vibrant and diverse workforce. Combining preskilling, reskilling and upskilling efforts enable strengthening foundations for the allied health care pipeline. Preskilling programs, or providing training to an individual before they are hired, is an emerging strategy to consider. WeLearn’s Ready to Work Program is an example of this. As part of this program, we work with health care employers to understand the roles they most need to fill, like a clinical medical assistant for example, and we recruit and train individuals for those roles, prior to their employment, At no cost to the learner. In this model, we are identifying individuals who aspire to work in health care but may have seen cost, time or location as a barrier.

Reskilling existing workers has been a strategy that many health care systems have focused on. Reskilling employees from non-clinical roles to the clinical pathway promotes retention. However, as nurses have become overburdened, the ability of clinical educators in hospitals to run these programs has come under pressure. Forward thinking institutions are looking for external partners to assist with elements of delivering these programs — at scale and consistently.

Finally, the pandemic has shown us that many individuals have taken on responsibilities outside of their traditional roles, like for example the pharmacy technician in a local pharmacy that delivers COVID-19 vaccines or tests. In those cases, organizations may consider creating the opportunity to create more hybrid roles and upskill their workforce to provide a wider range of service along the continuum of care.

Creating new pathways for individuals to enter the allied health profession benefits us all in terms of quality of care, patient outcomes and the vibrancy and resiliency of our health care system.