The healthcare industry, suffering from a deep and worsening workforce shortage in both urban and rural areas, must dramatically improve and diversify its efforts to attract young people to the field.
The challenge is big enough that the industry can't solve it on its own; government, educators and the media must help.
The worker shortage is cutting across nearly all job descriptions. A recent American Hospital Association study found that 89% of hospital chief executive officers nationwide are reporting "significant" workforce shortages, with a 13% vacancy rate for registered nurses, a 15.3% vacancy rate for imaging technicians and a 12.7% vacancy rate for pharmacists.
All of this comes at a time when the demand for healthcare services is increasing because of an aging population and an explosion in the number of new treatments and technologies. The federal Bureau of Health Professions projects that the number of healthcare jobs will need to grow to more than 14 million in 2010 from 11 million in 2000 to meet increased demand.
The healthcare industry must form meaningful and lasting collaborations with education leaders to ensure that students are drawn to the health professions and that they are adequately prepared for technical school, college and graduate programs. High school guidance counselors need to understand the healthcare community's needs as well as its diverse career opportunities-including clerical jobs such as medical records coders, technical jobs such as radiation technicians and professional jobs such as nurses, pharmacists and physicians.
In Our Hands: How Hospital Leaders Can Build a Thriving Workforce, a new report by the American Hospital Association's Commission on Workforce for Hospitals and Health Systems, provides scores of tangible examples of how hospitals and other providers can attract more people to the field. Those examples include: outreach efforts in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools; internships and mentoring programs; tuition reimbursement, loan forgiveness and scholarship opportunities; outreach efforts to attract more ethnic and racial minorities; and initiatives to bring retired nurses back to the workforce to help with specific job functions.
Earlier this month, I invited the directors of every nursing education program throughout New York state to a Summit on the Nursing Shortage in June and asked them to help the Greater New York Hospital Association develop an action plan to meet a very specific goal-to increase the number of graduates of professional nursing education programs in the state by 50% during the next five years. It's a challenging goal, but I strongly believe that if hospitals and nursing home management work side by side with nursing education leaders, we will succeed. But successful recruitment is just the beginning. We want our employees to be proud of what they do and where they work, but surveys of employees show we've got work to do. A recent study by the American Organization of Nurse Executives revealed that at least six out of 10 hospital nurses said they had seen the quality of care go downhill in the past year in large part because there were fewer nurses caring for patients and increased nurse turnover.
Successful retention strategies will require new ideas, challenging ourselves, learning from other industries and, perhaps most important, listening to our employees. Hospitals that have begun to focus on designing a work environment that makes a priority of worker recognition and autonomy, open communication, flexible hours and shifts, and career development are witnessing not only declines in employee turnover and job burnout, but improved patient satisfaction and lower mortality rates. Let's learn from these best practices.
Government can and should play a significant role in solving the workforce shortage. After all, government actions during the past decade have contributed to creating an extremely precarious financial situation for healthcare providers. Huge Medicare and Medicaid cutbacks have left many hospitals and nursing homes on the brink of financial disaster, forcing layoffs, reduced services and even some closings.
In New York, we've recently witnessed how government can enhance providers' capacity to attract and retain workers. In January Gov. George Pataki and the state Legislature worked in a bipartisan fashion to create legislation that provides $700 million over three years to hospitals and $500 million for nursing homes to help them recruit and retain healthcare personnel.
Examples of other effective actions the federal or state government can take include:
* Passing legislation to create scholarship programs for students who work in professions, regions and facilities with critical shortages.
* Creating incentive grants for schools and healthcare institutions that address shortages and meet policy goals, such as grants to schools that develop gerontology curriculums to encourage nurses to enter the long-term-care field and grants to providers that demonstrate best practices for nurse retention.
* Changing regulations to allow assistants to perform certain basic care tasks such as helping to feed nursing home residents, freeing up nurses for more intensive patient-care duties.
* Launching public education and media campaigns to promote nursing and other health professions that are experiencing shortages.
In these uncertain times, the healthcare community and government must work together to ensure that our workforce is strong, experienced and ready for whatever the future holds.