Graying America boosts medical care field

October 02, 1991|By Blair S. Walker

Massive and more than a little intimidating, Somatom HiQ waits quietly for Michele Morrison to slide another human into its gaping maw.

Somatom HiQ is the particular model of CAT scan machine used at Mercy Medical Center, where Ms. Morrison is chief radiographer. CAT scans utilize high-tech wizardry to produce cross-sectional pictures of the body's anatomy. Patients are placed on a sliding table that moves through a large, circular opening, where radiation is emitted to generate CAT scan images.

In a setting most cold and impersonal, Ms. Morrison puts patients at ease with warmth and compassion. For her, combining cutting-edge, medical technology and age-old caring are all in a day's work.

Radiographers, who also operate X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging machines, are in great demand, as are most vocations in the medical profession. Experts who track the field say its manpower needs have grown steadily in recent years, making its employment prognosis excellent.

"Of all sectors, clearly the health sector is one in which there will be the greatest growth in employment, largely because it is recession proof," said Jonathan P. Weiner, associate professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

"And as the population grays," Mr. Weiner said, "there will continue to be increased demand for services.

"The health care sector is becoming very technology-oriented, therefore the demand for well-trained personnel will continue to increase," he said. "But that is not to say that the demand for lesser-trained personnel, such as nursing assistants and orderlies, won't be in great demand as well."

Eugene Melnitchenko, a health care analyst for Legg Mason, Wood, Walker Inc., has a similar assessment.

"I would guess that while some of the industrial sectors of our economy here weakened, and some of the government employees may have been losing jobs because of budget deficits, the health care field continues to expand and continues to hire people," Mr. Melnitchenko said. "And this will probably continue over the foreseeable future."

In his role as director of operations and human resources for the hospital complex at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Denis E. Orthaus has a good handle on which health sciences vocations are in greatest demand.

"Some of the positions that are extra hot right now are physical therapist, speech therapist and audiologist," Mr. Orthaus said. "Those are some of the positions that we're having difficulty recruiting for."

Those jobs call for four years of post-high school training and command starting salaries in the neighborhood of $30,000 to $35,000, he said.

Vocations not "extra hot" but still greatly in demand include radiation oncology technician, respiratory therapist and medical technologist. Training for these jobs is available at the community college level, and beginning wages generally range from $24,000 to $26,000, Mr. Orthaus said.

"There's not a lot of positions in the allied health professions that aren't a good opportunity yet," he said. "We see some softening in the market for nurses."

Even so, demand for nurses is better than that for most vocations not in health-related fields, Mr. Orthaus added.

Pharmacy is an area where growth has been strong, according to Robert M. Beardsley, associate dean for student affairs and administration at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

At the University of Maryland, there has been a 20 percent increase in pharmacy school enrollment over the last four years. The school has a student body of 300 and admits 100 new applicants each year, Mr. Beardsley said.

Graduates from the 1991 class were rewarded with starting salaries that ranged from $43,000 to $60,000, according to Mr. Beardsley.

Of course, the high priests and priestesses of the medical profession -- in terms of pay and prestige -- have always been doctors. Ironically, the demand for physicians is weak to non-existent.

"There are too many doctors," Johns Hopkins' Mr. Weiner said. "Many experts, in fact, believe that the need for allied health personnel will far outstrip the need for new physicians, given that some believe we have a surplus of physicians."

Roger S. Taylor, who deals with national health care issues for the Wyatt Co. consulting firm, said doctors aren't the only vocational group not in great demand.

"What we're seeing across the country is that we have produced, in general, more physicians, more psychologists, more psychiatric social workers, more podiatrists and more chiropractors than we need," Mr. Taylor said.

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