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Articles / 2007

Healthcare worker shortage a danger
Report says it's a threat to state and industry

Ventura County Star
Tuesday, 11/06/2007
By Michelle L. Klampe

California is facing an unprecedented shortage of college-educated healthcare workers that poses a serious threat to the industry and to Californians' health, according to a report released Monday by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

"Closing the Health Workforce Gap in California: The Education Imperative" explores the double-whammy now facing the healthcare industry: the state's growing population of people over age 65, who need more care as they age, coupled with the looming retirement of a generation of highly skilled baby boomers who currently work in the healthcare field.

"Some of those shortfalls are going to be so significant in the very near future that they are going to endanger Californians' health," said Ed O'Neil, professor and director of the Center for Healthcare Workforce Studies at UC San Francisco, and one of the report's authors.

At highest risk are the nursing and allied health professions. Allied health includes a wide array of technical occupations such as clinical laboratory scientists, physical therapists, surgical technologists, radiology technologists and respiratory therapists, making up 60 percent of healthcare jobs.

"This is a top priority for the future of healthcare in California," said Marilyn Chow, vice president of patient care services for Kaiser Permanente, which, along with the California Wellness Foundation, paid for the study. "We're hoping this study will really help us formulate some long-term, statewide solutions."

Among the report's findings:

• In nursing and nearly every allied health occupation, California lags the nation in the number of professionals in proportion to the population.

• In 75 percent of the occupations analyzed, California produces fewer graduates than job openings each year.

• Latinos make up more than 33 percent of California's population but only 17 percent of the allied health work force.

Educators and policymakers should focus on two key areas — increasing capacity for students in healthcare education programs and improving student success in college, said Abdi Soltani, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity.

"The biggest factor is the lack of capacity in community colleges and universities to train that work force," Soltani said. "There's not enough slots and there's not enough variety to fill a very diverse work force."

Partnership initiatives

Several efforts are under way locally to boost enrollment in health professions through a variety of education and healthcare partnerships. CSU Channel Islands launched a nursing bachelor's degree program this year in direct response to community needs.

The program was launched with the help of private funding, including donations from local hospitals that allowed CSUCI to double its initial class of students to 66.

The university also received a grant to launch the Nursing Pipeline Program, an outreach effort to draw more minority students by helping prepare them academically to apply for the nursing program and thrive once they arrive on campus.

"With these extra resources, we can really solidify the pathway" to a nursing career, said Barbara Thorpe, associate vice president for research and sponsored programs.

The university held a meeting with community leaders last spring to talk about other healthcare work force needs as well, said Steve Lefevre, associate vice president for academic planning. As a result, CSUCI also is considering adding a bachelor's degree in health science, though that program is still in the early planning stages and would be several years off.

In-house programs

Officials at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura are using a variety of tools to ensure they have plenty of skilled workers to fill demand. The hospital provided money for the CSUCI nursing program and also supports nursing programs at Ventura and Moorpark colleges, said Community Memorial CEO Gary Wilde.

The hospital also has put on in-house education programs and has sent staff members to Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara for specialized training to become clinical laboratory scientists.

Training opportunities in that field are in extremely short supply, Wilde said.

"We are in competition with a lot of other exciting professions," Wilde said. "We're trying to find ways to attract people."