Healthcare Business News
Mary Kay Henry
Mary Kay Henry

The future of healthcare: Staffing

The workforce of the future: Quality of patient care depends on having workers with right skills, education

By Mary Kay Henry
Posted: July 25, 2011 - 12:01 am ET

In the spring of 2010, members of the Partnership for Quality Care, a coalition of local leaders from the Service Employees International Union and the nation's leading healthcare providers gathered to address the critical challenges facing our hospitals, workers and patients, including the future of the healthcare workforce.

The 2 million nurses, doctors and healthcare workers represented by the organizations participating in the PQC—which was established in 2007—care for more than 60 million patients each year. Our shared concern: preparing for increased demand for care and an increase in the range of healthcare services. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, coverage is set to expand by 32 million Americans by 2019. In addition, within the next two decades, 78 million baby boomers will turn 65 and are expected to live longer lives and rely more on our healthcare system.

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The future of our healthcare workforce—and the quality of patient care—depends upon workers receiving the right training and education, and developing skills that are flexible and adaptable to new technology and new models of care.

The good news is that we know what is working now on the state and local levels. In New York, members of the Greater New York Hospital Association and 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East work together to identify emerging workforce needs and advance the education and skills of more than 40,000 working women and men each year. In Washington, SEIU Local 775NW runs an innovative intermediate-level training program for home-care workers focused on adult learners. For every success story our union and employers share, we know there are far more examples of success within the healthcare industry at large.

Much of the national conversation regarding the healthcare workforce since the passage of the Affordable Care Act has focused on addressing nursing shortages or the increased need for primary-care physicians. While these are very real issues, they are, figuratively speaking, just the tip of the iceberg.

Working together, employers and healthcare workers need to think creatively about the new roles caregivers can play in addressing the cost drivers of chronic illness and long-term care. Community-based healthcare workers can improve the quality of care for chronically ill patients in their homes and prevent costly hospital readmissions. Coordinated home care services can ensure seniors and people with disabilities the choice to live at home and save families and taxpayers the cost of institutionalized care.

While some members of Congress and opponents of the healthcare law may be focused on delaying or destroying it, the real work of delivering its benefits to patients is taking place every day in our hospitals, health centers and nursing homes, and Americans are counting on us to continually improve the quality of care we provide.

Together, we need to look for opportunities that maximize the skills of our current workforce, invest in education and training for new workers, and begin to address the “diversity gap” that is holding us back in making real headway in tackling healthcare disparities. And at a time when millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed, we need to ensure that every healthcare job is a good job that can sustain a family.

Hospitals and long-term-care facilities added tens of thousands of jobs since the beginning of the year, and yet nearly one in three home-care workers doesn't have health insurance and the majority work for poverty wages. These working conditions result in skyrocketing turnover rates and an opportunity to grow a new healthcare career for an entry-level worker perishes in the process. We cannot lose sight of the fact that our healthcare system is only as strong as our entire healthcare workforce.

Americans, old or young, rich or poor, deserve the highest quality of care every day, at every level. If we are going to transform our healthcare system to deliver better care to patients while controlling healthcare costs, we need to consider the readiness of the entire patient-care team: from dietary aides and home-care workers, to lab techs, nurses and doctors.

Now is the time to move the conversation from local issues of supply and demand to a national dialogue with employers, workers, universities and community colleges, and leading experts in the field.

Mary Kay Henry is president of the Service Employees International Union.

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