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Health Care Workforce Shortage Threatens

New coalition pledges to increase health care worker population.

For 17 years, Patricia Lane has witnessed the ups and downs of recruitment in the nursing profession.

As director of nursing clinical development and research for Inova Health Systems, Lane said she has seen a steady number of students who want to pursue a health care career. But because of a lack of staff qualified to teach, many are deterred and choose another profession.

"We have about 1,300 placements each year in our clinical rotation program," she said. "But there's a waiting list of over 200 students at [George Mason University] that, because of a staffing shortage, can't get into the classes."

Long-term care facilities and hospitals in Northern Virginia are experiencing the largest shortages of registered nurses in the region, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics with staff vacancy rates of 14.4 percent and 10.7 percent respectively.

Perceived low wages, undesirable hours and schedules, hard work and stressful working environments in hospitals and nursing homes have led some nurses to choose outpatient clinics and home health agencies instead. These employers may offer higher wages or provide flexible work schedules, and have attracted more workers, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

To combat this shortage NoVa HealthFORCE, a recently formed health alliance, proposed to increase the number of annual graduates in nursing and allied health areas in Northern Virginia by more than 600 students in four years. The group has called for an increase of 135 registered nurses and 200 “allied health graduates” each year until 2009. The term allied health is used to identify a cluster of health professions, ranging from cardiovascular technologists and technicians to dental hygienists. It covers as many as 100 occupational titles, exclusive of physicians and nurses, according to the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions.

NoVa HealthFORCE, comprised of health care professionals, public education officials and technology representatives, estimated a $24.3 million budget was needed to increase graduates in the region by 80 percent. The group said funding would be raised from state, health care, business and philanthropic entities.

IN THE NORTHERN Virginia health care industry, a shortage of 2,763 health care workers exists, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Approximately 1,000 of the vacancies are for registered nurses, according to the study. By 2020, the shortage of health care workers could increase to more than 16,000 unfilled positions, according to the report.

Concluded in January 2005 for the HealthFORCE alliance, the study, "The Health Care Workforce Shortage: An Analysis of the Scope," surveyed health care service providers in the Northern Virginia area. The purpose of the study was to assess the needs of 24 different health care job categories in the nursing, allied health and other health care career fields.

By 2020 the Northern Virginia population is projected to increase by 33.5 percent — almost double the United States' growth rate, according to the report.

Because the population growth will lead to growth in both quantity and intensity of health care requirements, and because the average registered nurse in Virginia is more than 45 years old, HealthFORCE representatives said immediate action is necessary to bring in new — and younger — health care professionals.

"We have a critical shortage of registered nurses and health care workers in Virginia," said Robert Templin, president Northern Virginia Community College. "That will make a crisis situation if we do not take action."

During a June press conference, Templin announced a three-stage plan to increase health care workers over the next four years: one, increasing the number of health care students; two, develop and sustain an ongoing supply of students interested in entering health care fields; and three nurturing innovation in health professions and education.

TO INCREASE THE NUMBER of students, Templin said the group has asked the state to fund higher education programs, so more faculty are available to teach. NVCC and George Mason University are partnering to expand programs into Loudoun and Prince William counties, areas with much of the fastest growing population.

A comprehensive nursing career ladder is also being created at NVCC to allow certified nurse assistants and licensed practical nurses to move into the registered nursing field through apprenticeship programs.

Del. Vince Callahan (R-34), chairman of the Virginia House Appropriations Committee, said he will propose spending $19 million over the next three years to help NVCC's and GMU's health care education programs.

"We're not funding the health care industry very well right now," he said, making a vow to get the proper funding.

At the secondary school level, Fairfax County Public School officials will explore the creation of one or more magnet schools in health care and life sciences professions, according to Jack Dale, Superintendent FCPS.

Inova Health Systems will commit $800,000 over the next four years to help with funding, according to Knox Singleton, president and CEO Inova Health Systems. He said Inova was also building a regional training facility in Loudoun County.

Kaiser-Permanente will also contribute $55,000 in grants to NVCC for an online nursing program, according to Philip Carney Jr., president and medical director Kaiser-Permanente Mid-Atlantic Region.

The Northern Virginia Technology Council also committed its resources to increasing technological involvement. Through a task force, NVTC plans to bring together regional technology companies and begin dialogue with area health care facilities. NVTC will also assist NVCC and in establishing educational programs that educate students about the most advanced health care technology solutions.

Lane said if students are able to take online courses, their schedules would be flexible, allowing them to do their clinical rotations at varying times — ultimately freeing up staff.

The ability to take courses 24 hours a day, seven days a week, would also allow more students to pursue a health care degree, instead of being wait-listed, Lane said.

"We're getting a lot of students who are [on their] second degree," she said. "They know what they want to do and they want to go into it and they shouldn't have to wait."

After learning about the HealthFORCE plan, Lane said she hoped outreach would begin immediately.

"It's so good that they're finally being proactive about this problem," she said. "I hope we're able to get the funds to get this going."