How Online Learning Can Solve the World’s Demand for Medical Professionals

  • 3 Min Read

By 2030, global demand for health workers will rise to 80 million workers, which is double the current (as of 2013) stock of health workers, while the supply of health workers is expected to reach 65 million over the same period, resulting in a worldwide net shortage of 15 million health workers.[1] The US is certainly feeling the pinch. With an increasingly aging population to serve, the US, according to estimates, needs to hire 2.3 million new healthcare workers by 2025 in order to meet healthcare system demands. These demands cross all healthcare disciplines, from home health aides to lab technologists to nursing assistants and practitioners.

CNN infographic[2]

Online learning offers educational institutions specializing in healthcare training an opportunity to expand their reach into new geographies and reach changing student demographics in new and dynamic ways. In the past, medical students, nursing students and other health professionals learned through a combination of classroom work and practicum. However, over the past two decades or more, online learning has become far more commonplace and accepted as a vehicle for medical learning. Today, more than 300 nursing schools operate online programs, and in answer to the Institute of Medicine’s call to increase the number of US nurses with a BSN from 50% to 80%, many other universities have introduced online programs specifically oriented toward helping working RNs uplevel their education and achieve their nursing baccalaureate.

Online learning is also becoming increasingly acceptable (if not preferred) for students of medicine. A 2004 report by the Sloan Consortium indicated that 56% of universities considered online education as part of their long-term enrollment strategy, and 32% of public and private universities offered a health profession major online.[3]

Many institutions now offer undergraduate programs in biological and biomedical sciences, and significant efforts have been undertaken by other online institutions to offer medical school programs for distance education students. In 2004, a consortium of universities led by Scotland’s University of Dundee established the International Virtual Medical School — an online medical school allowing students to study for a medical degree in a variety of nontraditional settings combined with field experiences at local clinics.[4] Studies show that the quality of medical/nursing education delivered by online education and residency programs is equal to that of traditional classroom-based instruction. While some online students have migrated back to the classroom so they could be with “live” people, most who adapt to online instruction show no significant difference in test score achievement or retention of information. In terms of student satisfaction, successful online students tend to indicate that they are “equally or more satisfied” with their courses than they are with “traditional” instructional settings.[5]

In a working paper entitled “The US Health Provider Workforce – Determinants and Potential Paths to Enhancement,” Jeffrey Flier of Harvard University and Jared Rhodes of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy look at the current healthcare worker shortage and make a strong argument for improvements to loosen up the “supply side” availability of licensed practitioners. Acknowledging that the traditional education system simply cannot generate practitioners at the required scale, the pair call for new and shorter training paths and the use of transformative technologies as force multipliers for both medical education and practice. With decades of use and practice in place and strong evidence of its viability and efficacy, online learning — especially when combined with competency-based learning models — can indeed be considered one of these force multipliers, allowing institutions to reach more learners, graduate qualified professionals faster and play a significant role in solving the healthcare worker shortage.

[1]Global Health Workforce Labor Market Projections for 2030
[2]The US can’t keep up with demand for health aides, nurses and doctors
[3]The Acceptability of Online Courses as Criteria for Admission to Medical School
[4]Ibid
[5]Ibid

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