As the nation prepares for what is being termed the ‘triple threat’ of RSV, COVID, and the flu, I can’t help but fear that the lingering crisis, a shortage of medical professionals in this nation, will always be overlooked for the symptoms of this larger crisis that makes headlines. Chronically ill patients, like myself, have been acutely aware of this crisis for years. After nearly 3 years of experiencing a rapidly deteriorating medical system, I fear what may come next as hospitals reach or become near capacity and more physicians and nurses leave a field that has become untenable.
My experience is not unique. I am a Crohn’s patient who takes a biologic to control my disease. My life is very much interwoven with the care I receive from medical professionals. In late February 2020, I began having symptoms of exercise intolerance as the nation was grappling with how to handle the Covid-19 pandemic. Since I’m immunocompromised and inability to exercise wasn’t considered a priority, I stayed home and hoped to receive care as the restrictions were lifted. Over the next 19 months, my condition would worsen, experiencing shortness of breath, chest pain, joint pain, muscle myalgia, rashes, and even suicidal thoughts. The overburdened medical system struggled to provide me appointments and stressed medical professionals quickly ushered me from their office when they could not identify my problem within the allotted appointment time. I finally lost my ability to walk and developed a Parkinson’s-like twitch. It was at this point I saw a neurologist who correctly identified my medication, Humira, as the culprit. It took 19 months, 11 medical doctors, 2 nurse practitioners, 1 physician’s assistant, and countless RNs before a well-documented reaction to a medication I take was identified as the problem. This wasn’t even the end. I now needed a new medication to control my Crohn’s disease and after a few months off Humira, I was clearly in a flare. I then endured another 3 months wait for a gastroenterologist appointment, the same wait I endured for rheumatology, endocrinology, and other specialists and tests. Due to the high volume of patients each doctor has, most local gastroenterologists will not even accept a patient if that patient has already seen another GI, even if the previous doctor potentially committed malpractice. Furthermore, medical providers will not expedite testing and medication prescriptions, no matter how severe your symptoms. I spent many hours crying on Zoom calls with a nurse because I could not leave my home due to Crohn’s. It took another 6 months to get the tests and procedures I desperately needed to start my new medication. No one should ever have to live in pain for as long as I suffered. The medical system is broken and we need a bipartisan effort to address issues that affect every American, regardless of political affiliation.
I’m not alone. There are patients all over the country who are not receiving adequate medical care due to the shortage of physicians and nurses in this country. This affects every American and action must be taken. We need federal programs to pay for medical or nursing school for students willing to commit to working in disadvantaged areas, tuition reform, and programs to attract students to medicine. In addition, it is time for a bipartisan effort to fix the H1B visa system, create incentives to bring foreign medical graduates into the U.S., and fast track their green card applications. Immigration reform has been long overdue in this country. A focus on attracting medical professionals and recent graduates from foreign medical schools would go a long way to patching up a broken system. Obviously more must be done to fix our medical care system but starting with addressing H1B visa issues can help many people currently waiting for care. Current bills introduced in Congress may help alleviate these issues; Healthcare Workforce Resiliency Act and Conrad State 30 and Physician Access Reauthorization Act. It is a start, but we have a long way to go. The system is broken. Fix it. Patients deserve better.