Increasing Demand for Healthcare Workers

Is there really a job shortage for healthcare professionals?

Experts agree that there is a real shortage of healthcare workers in the United States, although there are some who believed that it is just a faulty distribution of health professionals in certain areas (Derksen & Whelan, 2009).  It begs the question, why is there a shortage of healthcare workers when the unemployment rate is staggeringly high?  Sad but it is true that little has changed since last unemployment reporting period.  The number of unemployed persons hover around 12.7 million and the unemployment rate hovers around at 8.0% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012).  Yet, despite the depressing unemployment report in a depressed economic climate where few jobs are in demand, healthcare vacancies are the still the highest of any industry.  The March 2012 report indicates the promising growth in the healthcare industry as 26, 000 plus workers were added.  Most of the additions were in the offices of physicians and hospitals at around 8,000 jobs (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012).

Increasing demands for healthcare services

An incessant demand for healthcare services would result in increased demand for healthcare workers that will service specifically the growing number of adults who are 65 years or older.  By the year 2020, there will be more than 19-54 million people of over age 65 and that is an increase from the current rate of 12.5% to 20% of the U.S. population (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). The life expectancy for American’s has gone up and the baby boomers who are now in their late 40s and 50s will more than likely see their 85th birthdays and more.  The over the age of 65 represent a mere 13% of the population but they are the biggest consumer of physician visits and hospital visits (Mullan, Frehywot, & Jolley, 2008). If current utilization of healthcare continues, it is inevitable that the number of skilled healthcare workforce have to expand as well. The impact of the aging process on the U.S. healthcare system will be mostly felt in the next 50 years as both the population and the healthcare workforce ages.

Primary Care Physician Shortage

Fundamental to the shortage of primary physician is the ever increasing desire for talented doctors to specialize. Mullan, Frehywot, and Jolley (2008) wrote that an affordable healthcare system will not improve without increasing the number of well-trained primary care physicians (PCPs) and the way to keep them is to competitively compensate them for their expertise and work.  Indeed, the gap is widening between what the PCPs earn and their specialist colleagues.  The former only earn on average half of what the latter make.  Working conditions for PCPs have worsened with longer working hours to compensate for the stagnant salaries (which is among the lowest), thus the appeal for those young medical graduates is to specialize into something else other than family practice or internal medicine. As a result, the role of PCPs is being fulfilled by foreign medical graduates, nurse practitioners and physician assistants.  The Association of American Medical Colleges estimated that there would be a shortage of about 21, 000 PCPs by 2015 (Mullan, Frehywot, & Jolley, 2008).

Nursing Shortage

According to Allen (2008), the nursing shortage is the by-product of more lucrative options for women, an aging workforce, unsatisfactory conditions for older nurses, and the decline of the young and minorities’ attraction to a nursing career.   The nursing shortage might have started in 1988 and peaked in 2002, which was the timeline when government and private payer reimbursement plan declined, hospitals were forced to downsized, and thus registered nurses (RNs) were laid-off as cost cutting measure.  The displaced RNs were replaced by lower paid unlicensed personnel including a decline in the recruitment of nurses.  This contributed to increased workload and stress to the remaining nurses who found the working conditions unacceptable and thus left the profession in search for other job.

Nurses are considered to be the largest group of direct patient care provider in hospitals and the prestige afforded to a hospital is through the quality of care given to hospital patients (Hassmiller & Cozzine, 2006).   It seems that the shortage problem for nurses is cyclical.  For example, the percentage of nurses working for hospitals dropped from 59% in 2000 to about 56% in 2004, and it seems that the current shortage is due to the same problem previously stated such as aging workforce, recruitment and retention problems, and undesirable work conditions.

The undesirable working conditions were characterized by stress-related job burnout brought about by nurses spending enormous time on non-nurse related tasks, long shift hours of 12-16 hours, taking care of more patients, and working overtime.  It is estimated that by 2020, fewer nurses will be in the hospital workforce at an estimate of 400,000 and that is the time when baby boomers will be in their 70s and 80s (Hassmiller & Cozzine, 2006).

Conclusion

It remains to be determined whether there is an absolute shortage of health professionals or just a faulty distribution of health professionals in certain areas, but one thing is certain – the American population is aging.  The impact of the aging process on the U.S. healthcare system will be mostly felt in the next 50 years as both the population and the healthcare workforce ages. If current utilization of healthcare continues, it is inevitable that the number of skilled healthcare workforce have to expand as well.  There are not very many models out there that can adequately predict the ratio of health care workers to population in a given area. Chief among the reasons for labor shortage are an aging workforce, diversity disparity, difficulty in retention and recruitment, lack of educational training and career advancement opportunities, low wages and no fringe benefits, and increased workload.

 

Cesar Aquino is a Cytotechnologist with an MBA in Healthcare Management and currently a PhD candidate in Healthcare Administration.

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