The COVID-19 outbreak’s impacts on clinical health care education

Expert Insight

The COVID-19 outbreak’s impacts on clinical health care education

College and university leaders should continue to expect high demand for clinical health care education, but with unpredictable impacts on this fall’s enrollments. While the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted the spring 2020 semester (and likely onward into the year) and hurt health care providers’ budgets and hiring temporarily, we expect health care will recover before most industry sectors and will again resume its growth.

The first US COVID-19 case was reported in late February, and in mid-March state governments began issuing stay-at-home orders. Across this time, employers began freezing hiring, instituting furloughs, and laying off staff. While the total impact on our economy will take months to unfold, EAB is providing initial analyses for key fields to inform program planning conversations, and will update as we learn more.

Novel coronavirus outbreak creates urgent needs for health care providers, with educational programs struggling to fill the gap

Dramatic staffing shortages demonstrated immediate need for health care practitioners, pushing existing health care education programs to hurry students to graduation against obstacles such as suspended clinical rotations and emergency remote instruction. Beyond urgent efforts to get qualified practitioners into the workforce, however, institutional leaders need to be thinking ahead on their overall health care portfolio and how they can contribute to future health care needs.

Top-of-mind programs for their discussion should include nursing and allied health fields (e.g., physician assistant), and medicine for schools with the resources. Past EAB research had found mental health counseling, physical therapy, and occupational therapy as the most promising long-term opportunities to serve nationwide needs, and we’ll continue to revisit this question as the health care industry responds to the COVID-19 outbreak.

What we know now: COVID-19 introduced peaks in health care needs as well as dramatic but likely short-lived declines

Less-discussed than the dire need for health care practitioners were the COVID-19 outbreak’s other negative impacts on the health care industry—elective procedures that bring in revenue to subsidize other care were suspended, most patients rescheduled or postponed health care visits when possible, and health care providers needed to invest significantly in additional personal protective equipment and other resources. Response to the COVID-19 outbreak even correlated to a surprising decrease in some health care job postings, including registered nurses, as well as limiting growth in demand for needed roles like licensed practical nurses. (See below for a more detailed look at job postings data from early this year.)

The industry’s slump will be short-lived, however, especially in comparison to other sectors. Elective surgery centers are already resuming business, for example. Providers are thinking ahead to the next challenge of responding to delayed patient visits. Academic leadership considering program enrollment impacts should expect demand for health care practitioners and their educational programs to remain high.

Long before the coronavirus dominated our thinking, health professions degrees already presented students with the opportunity to do good for the world while securing a reliable career. In EAB’s analysis of changes in the master’s degree market, health degrees experienced the greatest absolute growth in degree completions from 2011 to 2018 while also ranking second in total master’s degrees conferred in 2018 (education took first). High operational costs prevent health care programs’ enrollments from delivering the revenue growth many institutions need today, but students have historically shown undeniable interest.

What to watch: Will COVID-19 inspire or scare off future health care students?

Your future students have watched the country cheer health care professionals for treating COVID-19 patients, while simultaneously leaving practitioners severely at-risk for infection themselves. It’s too early to know how, if at all, this will affect students’ interest in health care professions.

One immediate indicator to watch can be Google search trends: thus far, students’ search behavior hasn’t shown heightened interest in nursing degrees, as an example, with only a slight upward trend across the past year. Current programs’ inquiry and application data, and eventual enrollment numbers, will offer another early view into student behavior. Longer term, students’ intended major as reported on the SAT and ACT will let us see how COVID-19’s coverage impacts high schoolers’ interests and if there’s a lasting effect.

Interest over time in “nursing degree” as measured by Google search trends

nursing degree trends

What this means: Health care practitioner programs continue to offer enrollment potential post-COVID-19, and are a valuable though costly service to your communities

Health care providers have shown slowed growth and even declines in their job postings, but we continue to expect those impacts to be short-lived given the high and growing need for health care overall. Student behavior could lead to more caution in enrollment expectations, if the attraction of employment can’t overcome concerns about working in health care post-pandemic. Thus far it’s too early to see strong reasons to overturn our optimistic outlook, however.

Occupations open to sub-baccalaureate professionals are experiencing the greatest growth and stability, when compared to job postings requiring a bachelor’s degree or above for practice. Schools serving this sub-baccalaureate audience will likely experience the most reliable demand for health care education in the near term. Schools with relevant bachelor’s degree programs may consider this as a future audience for up-credentialing if roles prefer or eventually require more advanced education.

All roles requiring a non-degree credential experienced growth in early 2020 compared to early 2019, though job postings did decline from January to April (suggesting COVID-19 still impacted demand, as these roles had largely seen increased demand from January to April 2019). Employers are showing notable need for licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses, with an eight percent growth in demand from early 2019 to early 2020 and the lowest decrease (five percent) from January to April of this year.

Respiratory therapists experienced the greatest growth in demand from early 2019 to early 2020 (nearly 60 percent) among positions requiring a minimum of an associate’s to practice, as well as growth from January to April of this year.

Postsecondary certificate practitioner job postings changes

Postsecondary Certificate Practitioner Job Postings Changes

Source: EAB analysis of Emsi Analyst data

Associate’s degree practitioner job postings changes

Associate’s Degree Practitioner Job Postings Changes

Source: EAB analysis of Emsi Analyst data

Discussion of bachelor’s-level practitioner education largely means nursing education. Registered nurse positions (which require only an associate’s degree for licensure, but overwhelmingly prefer a bachelor’s degree for practice) remained the most significant need nationally. Job postings for registered nurses, however, did decline from early 2019 to early 2020. Historic nursing shortages would imply this decline should remain brief, though, while health care providers move from crisis response to longer term staffing.

More broadly among roles for bachelor’s-level professionals, only clinical laboratory technologists and technicians experienced growth in demand from early 2019 to early 2020.

Bachelor’s degree practitioner job postings changes

Registered nurse job postings changes

registered nurse job posting trends

Source: EAB analysis of Emsi Analyst data

All other bachelor’s-level job postings changes

All other bachelor’s-level job postings changes

Source: EAB analysis of Emsi Analyst data

Among master’s-prepared professionals, speech-language pathologists and nurse anesthetists experienced growing demand from early 2019 to early 2020, unsurprising given their roles caring for patients on ventilators as some COVID-19 patients are. Other roles experienced declining demand amid the initial COVID-19 response (e.g., physician assistants, nurse practitioners) but likely experienced a suspended hiring similar to registered nurses, and similarly programs should expect to see demand increasing once again.

A decline in job postings for essential health care practitioners also occurred at the doctoral level: physicians and general practitioners, for example, experienced fewer job postings in early 2020 compared to early 2019. Again, broader health care trends would suggest these positions will return to increasing demand in the longer term.

Master’s degree practitioner job postings changes

Master’s Degree Practitioner Job Postings Changes

Source: EAB analysis of Emsi Analyst data

Doctoral degree practitioner job postings changes

Doctoral degree practitioner job postings changes

Source: EAB analysis of Emsi Analyst data

What’s next?

We’re continuing to watch job postings trends as well as adjustments to employment projections, and to monitor trends our partner colleges and universities are reporting. Expect updates to this analysis as we learn more this summer. In the meantime, check our upcoming regional profiles to see if health care roles rank among the most demanded jobs for your area.

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