The shortage of physicians in community health centers is so great, that if all clinical vacancies were filled today, community health centers could serve an additional two million patients, research shows.
There’s a report out this week that quantifies the chronic staffing shortages at community health centers.
Researchers with the National Association of Community Health Centers found that 95% of community health centers are coping with at least one clinical vacancy at any given time, and that 70% of the time these centers are recruiting for at least one family physician. The report also found that:
- 56% of health centers report at least one behavioral health staff vacancy, such as a licensed clinical social worker, psychologist, or other mental health/substance abuse professional.
- Health centers have higher average vacancy rates for physicians than hospitals.
- More than half of all National Health Service Corps participants are providing care at a health center.
- Health center providers make up 53% of current NHSC participants and 61% of currently listed NHSC vacancies are at health centers.
These pervasive shortages of clinicians come as 24 million people—more people than ever before—rely upon community health centers as a care access point. If all clinical vacancies were filled today, community health centers could serve an additional two million patients, according to estimates cited in the report.
(If I were writing for a general readership, this is about the point where I would segue into a few paragraphs about the inspired work that community health centers have done for more than 50 years to provide cost-effective care for vulnerable, underserved populations. We already know that. Let’s move on.)
Nothing in the report was terribly surprising to anyone paying attention, although it’s good to have the numbers in hand so that we can get a sense of staffing challenges that health centers face.
It’s also good to remind ourselves what community health centers are up against when it comes to recruiting and retention. For starters, primary care physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and behavioral health specialists are in high demand everywhere.
Community health centers generally cannot offer the same salary and benefits as hospitals, physician practices, retail clinics, and other settings. Beyond that, community health centers are often located in remote rural areas or struggling urban neighborhoods, healthcare information and medical technology and clinic support systems are often lagging, work schedules are brutal and language barriers are rife.
Those are all daunting challenges, which makes you wonder why staffing shortages at community health centers aren’t far worse. “We are really fortunate that the providers we are able to recruit really want to be at the health centers,” Jana Eubank, associate vice president of Public Policy and Research at NACHC. “You have to be a special kind of person to want to work with underserved populations. They are incredibly committed to their communities and their patient populations.”
There are also palpable benefits that come with the job. “A lot of providers are open to it because they can be providers. They’re not having to deal with the administrative hassles you have in private practice,” Eubank says.
“Another thing they really appreciate is that our model of care is very comprehensive compared to most private practices, and even group practices. We address all of the needs of the patient, as well as special service needs. They are working in a care team, not only on the medical side, but there are behavioral and social services providers who can help with care coordination.”
John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.