A Preview of Top Healthcare Employment Issues in 2012

By Jennifer Larson, contributor

January 9, 2012 - Economic growth rates, baby boomer retirements, primary care shortages and clinical job prospects are just a few of the big healthcare employment issues under discussion as 2012 unfolds. What will change, and what will remain the same?

Last year was a landmark year because the first wave of baby boomers--those born in 1946--began turning 65 and aging into the Medicare system. Most experts have been predicting that this large influx of enrollees will increase the demand for healthcare providers, and will continue to do so in the next few years.

“The demographics of the population are still driving the same way that they have been with the baby boomers hitting retirement age, which will happen for the next 25 years or so,” said Atul Grover, M.D., Ph.D., chief public policy officer with the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Under normal circumstances, that surge of people into the Medicare system would also be accompanied by the beginning of a wave of retirements, opening up job opportunities for younger professionals to replace the retirees. At least 45 percent of the nurses in the current workforce are 50 years old or older, and one-fourth of the active physician workforce is over 60. However, the economy continues to grow only slowly, and as one result, many healthcare professionals have decided to postpone retirement.

Some also transitioned from part-time work to full-time work, often to replace a spouse’s lost earnings. This is well-documented in the nursing field, but the Pharmacy Manpower Project has noted this trend has affected the pharmacist workforce, as well. Additionally, some organizations have been hesitant to hire.

There are some bright spots in the employment picture, however.

The national unemployment rate has dropped about a half percent over the past year; it currently hovers around 8.5 percent, according to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the course of 2011, the BLS reports that healthcare employment rose by 315,000. And the health care sector continues to add jobs; according to the BLS, healthcare added 23,000 jobs in December 2011, and employment in hospitals increased by 10,000.

Generally speaking, this situation means that there will be jobs for physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals in the future.

“I think if you’re a new physician, your prospects are terrific,” Grover said.

A survey by the national physician search firm Merritt Hawkins, an AMN Healthcare company, released in October 2011, found that a growing number of physicians prefer to work in a hospital setting. Fortunately for them, hospitals’ hiring of physicians seems to be on the rise. The recently released 2012 edition of AHA Hospital Statistics noted that the number of physicians employed by hospitals jumped by 32 percent from 2000 to 2010. More hospitals have started hiring intensivists in the last few years, too.

Nursing job prospects seem relatively good for the future, said Peter McMenamin, Ph.D., senior policy fellow with the American Nurses Association. “I think the long term is looking good,” he said. “And in the short term…we don’t see any blowbacks.”

He continued, “I don’t expect any dramatic increases, but I do expect there will continue to be increases” in hiring.

McMenamin noted that he expects hospitals to be hiring nurses this year, but nurses will also find jobs in physicians’ offices, long-term care facilities and ambulatory care centers. There will also be a continued demand for nurse practitioners, who many people are counting on to fill in some of the gaps left by the shortage of primary care physicians. And many clinicians have found work through temporary staffing agencies, which many hospitals use for staffing needs rather than adding permanent positions in uncertain times.

It is still possible, McMenamin added, that new graduates may have trouble landing their ideal jobs right out of nursing school, a phenomenon that developed a few years ago and has been particularly common in certain pockets of the country, like the Bay Area in California.

“It might take some of them longer to find a job than they’d like,” he said.

But their chances are still quite good. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing recently released a report showing that 88 percent of new graduates with baccalaureate degrees are finding jobs within six months of graduating.

The status of the Affordable Care Act, which is scheduled to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in late February, could affect jobs to some degree. The landmark legislation is supposed to add at least 30 million people without health coverage to the insurance rolls, thus driving the need for more primary care providers to care for them.

But Grover noted that even if the entire law was thrown out, it wouldn’t change the shortage of primary care physicians, which is predicted to exceed 91,000 by 2020. And eventually those patients would just age into the Medicare system and need providers.

“You would really just delay that shortage by a couple of years,” he said.

He noted that one major obstacle to increasing the supply of physicians in the pipeline is the lack of federal funding for expanding the graduate medical education (GME) system. Without additional funding from Congress, residency programs can’t add residency slots. And the needs are not only in primary care.

“We need more slots across the board,” Grover said, noting that the aging population will need more specialists to care for their chronic illnesses and other needs.

Physicians who are searching for a new job might want to consider expanding their horizons--and seeking employment in a rural area. “We’ve always had problems with rural areas, with getting physicians out to those areas,” Grover said.

One area for jobseekers to consider: the Northwest. The WWAMI regional medical education program, a partnership between the University of Washington School of Medicine and the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, has been very successful in recruiting medical students and retaining them to stay and work in the five-state region, which is mostly rural. But there is still an ongoing need for more physicians.

“All of our states have openings,” said Suzanne Allen, M.D., MPH, vice dean for regional affairs in the UW School of Medicine. “Despite how well we do with what we have, we just don’t have enough medical education [GME positions] to meet the overall needs of our states. So that’s why we continue to have openings.”

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