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Worker shortage still plagues the health care industry

| Sunday, Feb. 23, 2003

More people are working in health care in western Pennsylvania -- a rare reason for optimism in a problem-plagued industry with an employee shortage that still is significant.

"I think the tide is starting to shift, but it takes time," said Rebecca Harmon, director of health programming at the Community College of Allegheny County.

Occupations with the highest vacancy rates last year in western Pennsylvania's hospitals and long-tern care facilities are registered pharmacists at 11.6 percent, registered nurses at 8.6 percent and X-ray technicians at 8.4 percent, according to the Hospital Council of Western Pennsylvania.

Of the 22 occupations surveyed by the council each year, the vacancy rates of 14 occupations dwindled while eight increased.

"It still is a significant shortage," said Harmon.

CCAC educates about 75 percent of the region's nonprofessional health care workers, those other than doctors, dentists and chiropractors, Harmon said. The biggest shortages are for nurses, imaging technologists and respiratory therapists, she said.

"Why is a good question. We're not sure. The pay's actually very good for someone with a two-year education," she said.

"Any time you're in a health care career, it's not an easy job. It's one that takes a lot of dedication. It's one that takes shift work," she said. Stress levels are high as most hospitalized patients are seriously ill and not there just to recover, she said.

The good news is that enrollment in all of CCAC's 35 health care programs has been increasing, Harmon said. Enrollment in the college's nursing programs jumped a whopping 69.1 percent last fall from just the previous year, she said.

In attempts to combat the shortages, the college added evening and weekend classes and offers flexible, fast-track scheduling. CCAC and the Hospital Council also have stepped up efforts to inform students as early as high school about health care options.

Nationally, hospitals hand out signing and retention bonuses as a way of keeping in-demand employees. Hospitals in western Pennsylvania offer those less often but pay for employee's education in exchange for a commitment to continuing to work there, said Linda Allen, the Hospital Council's vice president of human resources.

The area has a couple factors working to its advantage, council officials said. Those educated at local institutions have a high rate of passage the first time they take state licensing exams, Allen said.

"A lot of the people who live here or grew up here want to stay here. We are blessed in that way," said Pat Jurczak, the Hospital Council's vice president.

Despite the inroads, Allen said, "The situation hasn't been resolved. There's been openings in health care since we started tracking openings 14 years ago."

The Hospital Council offers detailed descriptions of health care professions, including educational requirements and salaries, on its website .

Job vacancy rates in western Pa.


The shortage of health care workers is significant, but it is waning in many fields.

Occupation 1998 2000 2002
LPN 5.64 5.88 6.08
Nurse Practitioner 20.01 7.47 7.49
Staff Registered Nurse 6.39 6.96 8.57

Certified Registered

Occupation 1998 2000 2002
Nurse Anesthetist 16.47 11.15 5.74
Nursing Aide/Nursing Assistant 10.75 8.15 5.01
Physician Assistant 8.51 16.41 1.13
Staff Registered Pharmacist 7.25 12.36 11.55
Pharmacy Technician 5.52 8.03 6.87
Medical Lab Technician 4.07 6.33 8.61
Staff X-Ray Technician 4.21 5.63 8.44
Surgical Technician 6.56 7.82 7.85
Ultrasound Technician 4.48 6.93 4.30
Nuclear Medicine Technologist 7.01 5.71 8.01
Respiratory Therapy Technician 11.29 4.49 7.71
Staff Respiratory Therapist 7.35 5.68 5.78
Staff Physical Therapist 13.32 2.49 6.28
Physical Therapist Assistant 10.96 5.05 6.68
Staff Occupational Therapist 9.19 2.43 6.49

Certified Occupational

Occupation 1998 2000 2002
Therapy Assistant 10.19 7.69 1.10
Staff Medical Technologist 8.41 4.06 3.39
Medical Records Coder 11.70 9.14 3.63
Medical Transcriptionist 6.04 4.81 3.76

Source: Hospital Council of Western Pennsylvania

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