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Finding a Cure for the Health Care Workforce Shortage

Health care reform may come any day now. But increasing demand in the health care industry without finding a cure for our health care workforce shortage could have unintended consequences.
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As we come into the homestretch in the highly contentious debate over health care reform, there is the possibility that more Americans will have access to health care in the near future. Should health care reform pass, however, it is not clear how our already strapped health care system will handle the increased demand for services. This is especially true when it comes to the health care workforce.

Despite today's high unemployment rates, health care jobs are going unfilled. The outlook is bleaker still with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services projecting a shortage of 88,000 lab technicians by 2012 and nearly one million nurses by the year 2020. Currently, the American Society for Clinical Pathology reports that half of all medical laboratories are having trouble finding qualified lab technicians. On the IT front, the push to adopt electronic health records has prompted nearly one-fifth of health care chief information officers to plan on new hires in the next year, according to a survey by IT staffing and outsourcing firm Robert Half Technology.

The shortage is not due to lack of interest in the field. In 2009 the American Association of Colleges of Nursing reported that nearly 50,000 qualified applicants were denied entrance to professional nursing programs in 2008, and that the nursing faculty shortage was one of the main reasons. Health care programs in community colleges have students wait-listed in some cases for up to two years.

In fact, one of the major reasons more people are not qualified to fill health care vacancies is the bottleneck created in community colleges in critical need of appropriate health care faculty, additional classroom space and clinical experiences, and health care programs specifically designed to address the demand colleges need to fill in the health care industry.

One of the ways community colleges are tackling these needs is by collaborating with employers and others in their communities. Created to address recruiting and retention issues, the Health Careers Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati, Ohio, is an employer-led career pathways partnership between two educational institutions and three hospital systems employing approximately 30,000 individuals.

Employers in the Health Careers Collaborative provide space for clinical work at their health care facilities and have invested in the faculty positions, creating an additional financial incentive to attract qualified candidates. Serving workers who have not previously been college bound or who have not been successful with college, the Collaborative has graduated more than 1,500 students with health care certificates and has more than 145 students enrolled in associate degree programs at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College and Great Oaks.

On the west coast, Oregon is attempting to integrate its associate degree and baccalaureate degree nursing programs and build a statewide curriculum between the two programs in an effort to encourage faculty sharing. And other states, such as Mississippi, have approved salary increases for nursing faculty. But conversely, some states are resorting to lower faculty qualifications to meet the current demand in health care, according to Health Care Finance News ("Nursing Faculty Shortage a Barrier to Nurse Training," March 11, 2009).

To the degree they are able, community colleges are also increasing the number of courses offered on weekends, in the evenings, and online. The Kentucky Community College and Technical College System has initiated a new modularized online nursing program that allows students to take "mini courses." Colleges are using mobile labs to offer students hands-on learning usually gained through clinical experiences now in short supply.

The Obama Administration's American Graduation Initiative stands to strengthen our community colleges and provide critical support for the role they play in our economy. AGI would offer $12 billion to community colleges over 10 years to address accountability, construction, technology and other key pressure points as these institutions struggle -- with record-breaking enrollment rates -- to meet the increased demand for high-skilled workers with increasingly limited faculty capacity, space, and resources.

Health care reform may come any day now. But increasing demand in the health care industry without finding a cure for our health care workforce shortage could have unintended consequences. That's why initiatives to promote more access to better training and education are so critical at this time.

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