Hospital staff shortages could affect medical care, rising older population

Posted: Tuesday, October 08, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri hospitals are facing worker shortages because fewer people are entering medical fields while the demand for health care is on the rise, a report suggests.

The study warns that a lack of nurses, medical technicians, pharmacists and other health care professionals could have a severe impact on the availability of medical care now and in the future.

''At the core of the problem is the growing elderly population in the United States and the reduced pool of young people entering the work force,'' said Mary Becker, a senior vice president with the Missouri Hospital Association.

Becker said 44 percent of Missouri's population will be age 65 or older by the year 2020 and, with advances in medicine, people will live longer and require additional care.

The report, "2002 Workforce Status in Missouri Hospitals: An Overview,'' was released by the Missouri Hospital Association which represents 140 hospitals.

It notes that health care workers are aging. In 2000, the average age of a registered nurse was 45 years. By the year 2015, half of all registered nurses will retire, leaving a gap because nursing program enrollment fell 17 percent between 1996 and 2000.

While the number of registered nurses grew by 13.6 percent between 1993 and 2000, the report said the number of nurses working in Missouri remained the same.

Becker said enrollments in many medical fields have fallen because of perceptions that health care is not technology intensive and jobs are not stable and secure.

''People trust us to keep them well, care for them with all the latest technology and medicine when they're ill and to provide the highest quality care at the least expensive cost,'' Becker said. ''They aren't aware, however, of all the challenges we face in meeting their expectations.''

Carey Smith, deputy director of the Missouri health department's division of health standards and licensure, said the state is aware of the shortages.

In 2001, lawmakers passed legislation creating an advisory committee to study staffing issues within private hospitals. The committee is expected to issue its first report later this year.

''These shortages are a nationwide problem,'' Smith said. ''The whole thing here is that you can make changes on the surface but you don't want to give up quality of care.''

While health officials may want to attract young people into fields like nursing, Smith said easing the requirements for a state nursing license would have to be weighed against the level of care received.

In attempting to address the problems, the hospital association said it is working with community leaders and schools to promote jobs in medical fields.


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