Needed: Alaska health care workers

Posted: Tuesday, December 07, 2010

To keep up with the ever-expanding needs of Alaska's quickly growing senior population, Alaska will need to find ways to train and retain more local health care personnel, contended speakers at an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon Nov. 29.

Vacancies abound in the health care industry. According to a University of Alaska study published in December 2009, some 10.2 percent of registered nursing positions within surveyed health care organizations were vacant.

Nearly 27 percent of pediatric nurse practitioner positions were vacant among surveyed providers; in numbers, that accounts for four of 15 positions.

According to statistics from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development cited during the presentation, increased demand for health care services over the next 10 years will require Alaska to grow its health care workforce by 28 percent.

"These rates indicate a significant skills gap in the health care workforce at the present time, a gap that without increased attention can only worsen," according to the Alaska Health Workforce Development Plan, stakeholders of which were from state government, the University of Alaska system and private industry.

Seniors, among the most dependent upon health care services, are becoming a growing portion of Alaska's population, said Jan Harris, University of Alaska Anchorage's vice provost for health programs.

"Our 65-and-up age group will grow to about 20 percent of Alaska's population by 2025," she said. "It wasn't so long ago that the senior population was about 4 percent of our population. We're up to 8 percent now, and we'll be 10 percent soon."

And with as many as 64,000 Alaskans now expected to be enrolled in health insurance programs following the passage of the new federal health care law earlier this year, recruiting Alaskans to fill the growing health care void becomes even more crucial, speakers said.

Scott Jungwirth, chief human resources officer with Providence Medical Center, said Providence has spent upward of $15 million to retain health care professionals traveling from the Lower 48.

Retaining workers from Outside is a challenge due to Alaska's long, cold winters and lack of urbanization and infrastructure in many areas, he said.

Add the fact that Alaska is likely thousands of miles away from many of these employees' family members, and you have a situation in which high turnover is almost an inevitability.

Several entities in Alaska are stepping up to the plate, taking aim at high school students and enabling schools to train these budding health care workers.

The Alaska Health Workforce Development Plan is one such effort.

The plan focuses on encouraging Alaska schools to increase and enhance their health care training programs and classes, as well as offer better career counseling for students interested in the health care field.

The plan comes on the heels of similar efforts to address other areas, including training in-state workers for construction.

"We're just encouraging, from kindergarten through 12th grade, that there be more opportunities for students to engage around health care occupations and around delivery of health care," said Dennis Murray, director of long term care and workforce development with the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

Murray said high school was the critical grade level where these efforts should focus, because this is largely when young people make critical career choices, he said.

"We need to get more... certification programs, so that young people come out of high school with more capability to do something," he said.

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