Dire Shortage Seen in Allied Health Professionals

Cheryl Clark , September 23, 2009

California healthcare has put a big sign on itself that reads "Allied Health Workers Wanted Now."

To be exact, it needs to train about one million more people by the year 2030 to take jobs in the allied health professions, which excludes physicians and nurses. That's more than 11 states currently have in their total workforces.

With 605,153 allied health professionals now employed in about 50 types of skills—from medical assistants to lab technicians to dental hygienists—this so-called "hidden workforce" keeps the flow of patients moving through every type of care setting.

It includes physical therapists, physicians assistants, medical assistants, nursing aides, cardiovascular techs, ambulance drivers and emergency medical technicians and psychiatric aides.

But by 2030, the state will need to not only replace many of those 605,153 workers who retire, die, or choose to work elsewhere or in other occupations, it must train new workers to care for the growing number of senior citizens who will require care, to reach an allied professional workforce demand for 988,000.

That's according to a 35-page report released Tuesday under a grant from The California Wellness Foundation. It uses data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, and several agencies to document current and future workforce needs.

Susan Chapman, a nurse and director of Allied Health Workforce Studies at the University of California San Francisco, helped coordinate the report. She says the effort targets the state's education system, specifically community colleges, to help attract more students into allied health training courses.

The community college system faces a challenge though. Instructors could get paid more money actually doing the work than teaching. "Sometimes programs suffer from a lack of faculty to run them, and we need to figure out the best way to give those incentives."

It may be that the systems need to recruit allied health professionals to teach and pursue a clinical career simultaneously.

On top of that challenge, Chapman says, the state's budget crisis is reducing the systems' ability to offer the classes, which in many cases have relatively high equipment and material costs.

Chapman hopes that proliferation of advanced communication technologies may reduce some of this expense. For example, students in a number of smaller classes throughout the state's community college system may be able to attend the same class, as it's offered either on the Web or by video. That technology must be made available to those classrooms, however, she says.

The report added that the allied health sector workforce already generates a payroll of $23 billion, an amount that is expected to more than double every 10 years.

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