The Lag at the End of the Tunnel

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , August 17, 2009

Jenkins says there already are signs that hospitals may be on the rebound. "In the last two or three months, patient volumes on an aggregate basis have started to grown, but there are still a lot of caveats. We still have to be cautious," Jenkins says.

Regardless of the pace of the recovery, Jenkins says he believes hospital leaders will emerge from the recession with a different mindset. The healthcare reform debate is still looming, and nobody knows yet what – if anything – the final product will look like. The advent of electronic medical records is creating as many problems as it is attempting to solve. Medicare is projected to be insolvent by 2017 and while Congress likely won't allow that to happen, across-the-board reimbursement cuts are anticipated.

"Most hospitals recognize that the next five years are likely to be leaner economically and they are preparing for that," he says. "We have been in this situation before and we know that leaner times come. That was true in the late '90s with the Balanced Budget Act. Some of this is a lagging response to economic growth and also reflects hospitals getting more efficient and anticipating leaner times."

There is no telling when working Americans will begin to enjoy the fruits of recovery. For most of us, it can't happen fast enough. But we should probably get used to the idea that we won't see tangible impacts on job growth in the months ahead. And, if Jenkins' predictions hold true, it will be a long time–if ever–before we see the rapid expansion of the hospital sector workforce that we saw in the months leading up to the recession. While it may not yet be time to swap your flak helmet for a party hat, be patient. It looks like better days are coming.

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John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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