Creating our future health care work force

September 04, 2006|By John Reid

Labor Day marks the beginning of the school year, a time for students to reconnect with friends and teachers, to reflect back on the summer that was and to look toward the future and dream of possible careers. While students can and should be imagining a wide array of possible career choices, responsible adults should be using this time to help make good job opportunities a reality - especially in health care, where the need for skilled workers is so great.

Maryland, like the rest of the country, faces a health care crisis. Most people are aware that health care costs are rapidly rising and too many people must go without insurance. Less discussed is the fact that we don't have enough health care workers to meet demands - a problem that will continue to get worse as the population ages and needs more treatment.

There is a severe nursing shortage in Maryland. The shortfall here is 3,000 nurses; by 2012, this is expected to grow to more than 17,000, according to a University of Maryland report.

And it's not just nurses. We need more physical therapists, X-ray technicians, physician's assistants - indeed, almost every type of health care job is understaffed. A survey by the Maryland Hospital Association released last month showed that Maryland hospitals have major hiring needs in more than half of the health care positions studied. And shortfalls are growing. To take just one example, 22 percent of hospital positions for respiratory therapy technicians are unfilled, more than double the vacancy rate a year ago.

Having enough properly trained health care professionals is a key to ensuring quality care. Higher staffing levels lead to better patient outcomes, fewer complications and lower mortality rates. Without caregivers, there is no care.

Recruiting and training people to fill all these empty positions is a significant challenge. Health care training and education must be given the priority they deserve.

This summer, our neighbors in Washington took an important first step toward meeting the demand for more health care workers by launching an innovative training program that brings together educators, elected officials, hospital managers and union members.

The new District of Columbia Center for Allied Health Training is a creative collaboration among Southeastern University, Greater Southeast Hospital, Service Employees International Union Local 1199 and the City Council's health committee, led by David A. Catania. We joined together to make the center work by recruiting students, setting educational priorities, developing curriculum and securing funding from the D.C. government.

Classes to train medical assistants and lab and cardiovascular technicians begin in October. The program will be expanded to include other high-demand health professions over the next five years.

Everyone benefits from this partnership. Students gain access to meaningful career opportunities in health care, the fastest-growing field in the country. Health care providers can count on hiring trained professionals. And perhaps most important, patients will be able to receive high-quality care when they need it.

In New York, a joint program of SEIU Local 1199 and area hospitals provides education and career advancement opportunities for more than 35,000 workers.

Maryland has taken some preliminary steps to address the shortage of health care workers, but much more needs to be done. The vision of a reliable supply of skilled health care workers is just a summer daydream. We need to make it a reality.

Maryland has all the necessary ingredients to replicate and expand upon Washington's innovative program. We have great universities, respected hospitals, innovative union leaders and forward-thinking elected officials. We just need to come together and make training the next generation of caregivers a priority.

John Reid is executive vice president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, Maryland-D.C. Division. His e-mail is johnr@1199.org.

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