DALLAS-Despite rounds of layoffs and job freezes in much of the nation, hospitals in the Dallas-Forth Worth area are having trouble finding qualified people to staff numerous job categories.
A hospital staff supply-and-demand audit by the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council revealed tightness throughout the worker base.
The shortages in some cases are extreme. For example, the vacancy rate for physical therapy assistants is more than 22%. Others with high vacancy rates are physician assistants (18.9%), nurse practitioners (18.8%) and licensed physical therapists (17.5%).
The American Hospital Association defines any position with a 7% or greater vacancy rate as a personnel shortage area. By that definition there are shortages of full-time personnel in 17 professions in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
The other 13 positions fitting the definition are nurses' aides (14.8%), occupational therapists (14.3%), dietetic technicians (13.9%), patient-care assistants (10%), medical laboratory technicians (9%), surgical technologists (8.7%), biomedical equipment technicians (8.5%), nuclear medicine technologists (8.3%), respiratory therapists (8.2%), vocational nurses (8.1%), dietitians (7.8%), registered nurses (7.3%) and pharmacy technicians (7.1%).
The survey was conducted in late 1995 and shows changes from 1994. The information reflects positions at hospitals only.
The comparisons reveal a drastic change in the Dallas-area hospital job market in just one year. For example, the vacancy rate for medical laboratory technicians jumped to 9% from 3.4%. Meanwhile, the number of patient-care assistant positions plummeted 42% to 928 from 1,598.
And although the vacancy rate for registered nurses rose to 7.3% from 6.9% the year before, the overall number of registered nurse positions decreased 12.5% to 12,824 from 14,646.
"The demand for nurses is for experienced nurses, not for new graduates," said Penny Carroll, director of healthcare human resource support services for the hospital council.
"One reason the hospitals are experiencing a demand for nurses is nurses have a lot more opportunity to get jobs outside of hospitals now," Carroll said, citing opportunities in staffing services, home care and managed care.
Nevertheless, it can be hard for nurses just out of college to find jobs because hospitals are so focused on advanced nursing areas, such as nurse practitioners or critical care.
"We haven't had near the downsizing that the Northeast and the West Coast have had. Our demand is up compared with that," Carroll said. "I do get calls from people in those states who say, `Do you have a job for me down there?' I always say yes."
The south central region, Carroll said, has been largely spared the onslaught of managed-care utilization management. "We haven't seen a great deal of clinical positions downsized at this point," she added. Hospitals that are under pressure to reduce staffing are able to do it through attrition, she said.
Even so, managed care and Medicare are forcing hospitals to put a lid on the numbers of expensive therapists they hire. "In some cases they are substituting technicians for therapists, but therapists are there working with them," she said.
Hospitals recruiting physical therapists often must pay a signing bonus in northern Texas. A physical therapist in that area starts at $35,000 a year and can earn as much as $54,000. Physical therapy assistants start at $24,000 and can earn as much as $36,000.
"The only thing keeping them back from having more physical therapy assistants is they want to make sure they get reimbursed, and they are up against the licensure laws," Carroll said. Carroll said Medicare and Medicaid won't reimburse for physical therapy assistants, so "the number of positions is not nearly what it should be."
Finding qualified physical therapists has been a problem for hospitals nationwide for years. In Dallas, there is only one program to train physical therapists. The bottleneck, Carroll said, is that physical therapists in practice are making so much money that schools can't afford to hire them to teach new ones.
This is the first year the hospital council surveyed for dietetic technician openings. Out of 115 positions, 16 are vacant, a level that surprised officials. In the future, hospitals are likely to put two or three dietetic technicians with each professional dietitian, Carroll said.
The same holds true with Texas pharmacy technicians, who soon will be required to pass a board certification exam. Pharmacies now just give on-the-job training. But after the exam goes into effect, it will become much harder to hire qualified personnel. Hospitals also will have to compete for them against grocery stores, superstores and anyplace else that operates a pharmacy.
The Dallas-Forth Worth Hospital Council represents 84 hospitals in the area.