Demand For Allied Health Professionals Creating Shortages
By George C. Ford, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - One of the major challenges that’s facing engineering and other professions across America is also affecting the health care field — a growing lack of workers.
As the “graying” of America sends more pharmacy technicians, respiratory therapists, medical assistants and other health care professionals into retirement, shortages have begun to develop.
Approximately 80 million baby boomers in the U.S. are reaching retirement age and placing an increasing strain on the shrinking pool of allied health care professionals. Allied health care professionals are defined as those who have specialized training, but are not doctors or nurses.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts more than 6.1 million health care workers will be needed nationally between 2008 and 2018 to fill new jobs and replace workers who leave their jobs or retire. Of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the labor market, more than half are in the allied health care field.
In the Corridor, Kirkwood Community College, Kaplan University and the University of Iowa offer training for allied health care careers.
Kirkwood’s allied health programs lead to certification or licensure appropriate to the particular career. The college offers programs in dental assisting,
dental hygiene, dental technology, health information technology, medical transcription, electroneurodiagnostic technology, medical assisting, occupational therapy assistant, physical therapist assistant, radiologic technology, respiratory therapist, surgical technology, medical laboratory technology, paramedic and pharmacy technician.
Kaplan University, a for-profit school, offers training for medical and dental assisting, medical billing and coding, health and wellness, and pharmacy technicians. Kaplan, with campuses in Cedar Rapids and Cedar Falls, also provides online and campus certificate and degree programs in health education management, nutrition science and public health.
In 2009, Kirkwood opened a state-of-the-art $3.6 million, 10,000-square-foot Healthcare Simulation Center housed in an addition to Linn Hall. The facility, designed for the college’s allied health degree programs and continuing education training, is equipped with six patient simulators, computerized mannequins that can speak, cry and bleed.
Lack of clinical opportunities and laboratory space had prevented Kirkwood from expanding its allied health enrollment. Nancy Glab, dean of Kirkwood’s allied health department, said the passage of a bond issue in September by voters in the Kirkwood district will pay for remodeling of Linn Hall and create separate laboratories for occupational therapy assistants, physical therapy assistants, medical assistants and respiratory therapists.
“A lab that we built for 24 dental assisting program students houses 96 students enrolled in dental assisting and dental hygiene programs,” Glab said. “These new laboratories will help us better prepare our students for the real world.”
Glab said enrollment in Kirkwood’s allied health programs has jumped 38.5 percent from 555 students in the fall of 2001 to 1,438 in the fall of 2011. She said a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to the American Association of Community Colleges in 2010 will establish a virtual health care career network by the end of 2012.
“It will assist people in determining whether a career in health care is a good choice for them,” Glab said. “It also will provide a mapping system to map the future for someone planning a career in health care. They could start out in a certificate program, get a job, and then move to a diploma program and later to a career requiring a four-year bachelor’s degree.”
Glab said Kirkwood partners with the University of Iowa, St. Luke’s Hospital and Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo to prevent duplication of programs and make the best use of resources in the state.
“We have a shared surgical tech program with three other community colleges so they’re not creating the same wheel,” Glab said. “With distance education, the Iowa Communications Network and more online programming, we’re making education more accessible. Our medical transcription program is online and our health information technology program is primarily online with local clinics.”
Glab said some allied health care careers are facing as much as a 30 percent shortage, while a few are experiencing an oversupply at the present time.
“As baby boomers retire from health care careers and more of them require health care later in life, that imbalance will be corrected,” she said. “It’s better to have people in training before we experience a shortage because it takes time to complete these programs.”
A 2002 report from the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions concluded that nursing programs were receiving more attention from secondary school guidance counselors, while allied health care careers were largely being ignored. The report recommended that hospitals, community colleges and for-profit schools offering allied health career programs market them to a wider audience.
“Recruitment is something that should be a widespread responsibility involving the contributions of faculty, students, and alumni in effective marketing efforts,” the report concluded. “The best marketers are former graduates.
“‘Niche marketing’ directed to students whose interests align with different health careers, such as chemistry majors in relation to clinical laboratory science and psychology majors in relation to rehabilitation counseling and occupational therapy, may be an effective way of enlarging the applicant pool.”
Glab said Kirkwood has dental, emergency medical technician and farm technology programs in its high school academies.
“As we move forward, maybe we should be creating more high school academies for allied health,” she said. “It’s a direction that we’re looking at because of need and it helps high school students make critical and informed decisions about their future.”
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