They were heralded as heroes, especially during the early months of COVID-19 when they braved the front lines to provide care and treatment for those in need. But over the past year or more, there has been little fanfare for the tireless, dutiful work of health care staff and clinicians—and that includes those who serve institutions of higher education.
One in every five health-care workers nationally has quit since the pandemic started while one-third has been laid off, leaving more than 500,000 openings. Another 33% of nurses say they are considering leaving their jobs at the end of this year. They cite burnout and inflexible schedules as two factors. And one more might soon be added to the list: the inability to provide care for girls and women who are pregnant and seeking abortions.
Eight states already have banned the practice after the Supreme Court’s decision overturned Roe v Wade last Friday, and a dozen or more might join the list in the coming months. Could that lead to further attrition and put a pinch on college and university leaders heading into the fall?
A spokesperson at the American College Health Association told University Business it is a concern. “Campus health professionals have exhausted themselves over the last two years to protect their campuses from the harm and disruption caused by the pandemic,” she said. “For some, returning to an environment in which they may be forced to choose between providing care to a patient in need and legal prosecution may be untenable. Nor may they wish to live in a state in which their own reproductive health-care rights are infringed upon.”
The ACHA came out strongly against the Supreme Court’s recent decision on Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization that overturned Roe v. Wade, calling it “deeply distressing, as is the language of Justice Clarence Thomas, which suggests that existing protections for marriage equality, access to contraception, gender-affirming care, and LGBTQ+ rights in general are all under threat of similarly being overturned.” The organization also noted the potential impact on health workers and those who offer mental health support and services because of their oaths to uphold their codes of ethics.
“They are obligated to follow standards of care and are dedicated to providing the best health care to their campus communities,” the ACHA said in a statement. “This ruling, and the restrictive state laws triggered in its wake, will directly endanger college health professionals’ ability to provide evidence-based, patient-centered care and may place them in legal jeopardy.”
During the past two years, health-care workers have endured double shifts with few breaks while facing reduced pay amid dire conditions, where they say patient care has suffered, according to individual reports from nurses affiliated with hospitals at major universities. On the home page of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council website, a prominent image simply says, “Nurses Need Safe Staffing Now”, with workers there set to picket on July 16. Stanford University nurses in April launched a strike because of low pay and, ironically, their own mental health needs, as they continue to field increases in mental health calls from patients.
The Roe ruling has the potential to be devastating to already understaffed departments and university health-care units—especially in states where abortion is threatened—as nurses and others stand their ground. The impact might even go a step further.
“As students and families make enrollment decisions and choose to support IHEs in states with fewer restrictions, campus personnel in states with abortion bans may be negatively impacted by budget cuts due to declining enrollment at their institutions,” the ACHA spokesperson said. “Policymakers and campus leadership should be doing all they can to retain campus health professionals who have the institutional knowledge and specialized expertise to keep their campuses healthy and safe, not driving them away.”
Strong guidance, messaging and substantive change for health-care workers, as well as students who might be impacted, will be crucial as administrators and boards move through 2022-23. The ACHA says campus leaders can be effectual in three ways:
- “Where the root cause of student mental health concerns is the banning of access to health-care information or services, senior leaders can use their platform to speak to how that policy decision impacts their institution’s ability to advance its educational mission.
- Senior leaders can support student mental health by ensuring that institutional decisions are made based on thoughtful consultation that includes all constituencies impacted by these policies.
- In states where access to abortion and other reproductive health care or information are protected, senior leaders can assuage the student concerns by preparing for the strain on college health services’ capacity as community-based providers absorb patients from states with restrictions.”