By Jasmyne Ray
Besides obvious staffing issues, healthcare’s workforce shortage is preventing patients from receiving the care they need due to the lack of providers, Leonardo Seoane, MD, executive vice president and chief academic officer at Ochnser Health, testified during a recent U.S. Senate hearing on the workforce shortage in the healthcare sector.
HealthLeaders spoke with Seoane about his testimony, how Ochsner has navigated the workforce shortage, and future actions he hopes to see from policymakers.
This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
HealthLeaders: What workforce issues did the hearing address?
Leonardo Seoane: It was really addressing the workforce crisis we find ourselves in post-pandemic, which is a shortage of all healthcare providers, not just physicians. I think the Association of American Medical Colleges does a very good job of advocating and speaking to the fact that, and their biannual report said, there’s going to be anywhere from a 34,000 to 120,000 physician shortage by 2034, with the median being 64,000.
I also found out it varies regionally, but really it is a national crisis. There’s a shortage of lab techs, surgical techs, and nurses. It’s really across the spectrum of healthcare jobs that we’re seeing this crisis.
HL: How did you prepare your testimony?
Seoane: It truly takes a village and I’m privileged to work at an organization like Ochsner where we have an incredible team that is collaborative and collegial. I worked with the chief nursing officer, head of human resources, head of talent management, and our government relations team. We all came together and, really, I was the spokesperson for a lot a work that has been done by that entire team. We talked about the key points we wanted to convey, and one was that the senators understood that this is a healthcare crisis.
It was a team effort to be able to tell our story and what we are seeing right here, boots on the ground, but we wanted to do more than that. We also wanted to give some solutions.
The other key point we wanted to convey is the importance of public-private partnerships, because that’s how we’ve addressed this. We’ve partnered with our local state legislators that have allocated $25 million to the community colleges to help scale pilot programs such as the Ochsner Pre-apprenticeship LPN Program, for high school students. They spend half a day in high school and the other half taking dual enrollment courses to earn credit toward their LPN. Students complete clinicals at Ochsner and are supported as they learn our culture and how to focus on patients. This also increases our high school graduation rate because we’ve got them engaged, these students have one-year free tuition at a community college in Louisiana, and then they become an LPN.
HL: With rural communities becoming healthcare deserts, what do health systems like Ochsner that provide care to people in these areas need from policymakers?
Seoane: One is to support the ability to do telehealth and to develop innovative models of delivering care like digital medicine. Ochsner has a digital hypertension, digital diabetes program which is more than just digital monitoring; it’s digital management of diabetes and hypertension. It allows the patient, instead of having to come and see the doctor four times a year to get their blood pressure managed, to manage it remotely.
We’ve got good data that says it improves blood pressure and diabetes management and decreases hospitalizations and ER visits. There’s a lot of regulations that inhibit the ability for us to use telemedicine or these new digital programs. Some of that is federal, some of that is local and the licensing of physicians and ability for me to do telemedicine across state lines does need a comprehensive plan.
The other parts of it are financial and reimbursement. A lot of these are not reimbursed. Currently, Medicare doesn’t reimburse these digital models, but as we talked about with the looming crisis of physicians, we do need to leverage technology in our innovation.
HL: How do you feel your testimony was received?
Seoane: I think you go by the feedback you get. I received a beautiful letter from Chairman Sanders thanking me for my testimony and was asked by his team to follow up, and maybe even do a site visit to Ochsner and see these innovative programs and how we’re doing things. And I see that as very successful because I’m told that doesn’t happen very often after a testimony.
Senator Cassidy, who invited me to speak on behalf of the Gulf Coast and independent academic medical centers like Ochsner, also has been very gracious in thanking me, saying that it was very effective and the senators really took note of our message.
HL: As healthcare continues to try to stabilize the sector to prepare for the influx of people in the coming decade, do you think it will see action from policymakers?
Seoane: I was really encouraged with what Chairman Sanders said to open the hearing: “I don’t like having hearings just for the sake of having hearings. When I have a hearing, I’d like to see policy come out of that.” He was committed to bipartisan work on this because the truth is the nursing shortage, the physician shortage, the allied health shortage, it impacts every one of us when we need access to healthcare. I’m hoping that that we will see action because of the testimony.