State’s health care workforce isn’t growing fast enough to keep up with aging population

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Increased demand for health care, especially from the state’s growing elderly population, led to continued high vacancy rates for hospitals in Wisconsin in 2023, according to a Wisconsin Hospital Association report.

Despite efforts by health care providers to boost recruitment and training of nurses and other health care workers, the state’s workforce may not be able to keep up with the demand for health care in Wisconsin, the association states.

The WHA’s 2024 Health Care Workforce Report, issued this week, also found that workforce shortages were driven by retirements within a variety of health care fields, something that has also been driven by the “Silver Tsunami,” a popular term used to describe the mounting wave of baby boomers who are reaching and surpassing retirement age.

The phenomenon has long been cited in WHA’s annual workforce reports as a cause for concern as the state seeks to maximize worker availability, longevity and success within the industry, a press release from the association states.

The report points to U.S. Census Bureau data that places Wisconsin among the 15 oldest states in the nation. By 2030, roughly one in four Wisconsinites will be at retirement age, the report finds. While people over the age of 65 make up less than 20% of the population in the state, they account for nearly 40% of health care utilization.

“The aging of our population is a demographic force that is largely immovable,” the report notes, “but other gaps can and must be corrected.” Among the gaps identified in the report is increased workforce demand created by systemic breakdowns in the continuum of care, such as nursing home bottlenecks “that continue to leave hundreds of community members under the care of hospital teams because a post-acute care placement is not available.”

High-skilled vacancies

While the WHA’s latest report finds the health care workforce vacancy rates, which skyrocketed between 2021 and 2022, are stabilizing, vacancy rates for nearly half of health care professions in the state, excluding medical doctors, remain above 10%.

Vacancy rates for certified nursing assistants (CNAs) – lower-skilled nurses that provide the bulk of basic patient care at hospitals – have ceased to be the highest in demand. Their vacancy rate sat at roughly 12% in 2022, which is the latest data available in the WHA report. At the same time vacancy rates for higher-skilled nursing positions have grown. In 2022, the vacancy rate for licensed professional nurses (LPNs) was the highest among the 18 positions hospitals were surveyed on, landing at 18%. For certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) it was 14%.

The report did not look at the vacancy rates for doctors.

“Frontline technical positions continue to dominate the top vacancy rates,” the report states of the vacancy statistics. “Increasing vacancy rates in professions that require graduate or doctoral level degrees, like advanced practice nurse, physician assistant or pharmacist, are concerning.”

Turnover rates for many core patient care positions at hospitals in the state also have remained stubbornly high, the report found.

Growing training

The report also finds that growth in Wisconsin’s nursing workforce lagging behind the growth needed to meet current and future demand for care, and that the need remains to “promote interest in health professions” and grow educational and training programs for health care jobs.

Here in southeastern Wisconsin, universities and technical colleges, including Carroll University, Marquette University and Milwaukee Area Technical College, have been expanding their nursing programs, as have area health care providers, like Advocate Aurora. The Higher Education Regional Alliance (HERA) has also made growing nursing programs in the region a major priority.

To help with the cause itself, WHA and the WHA Foundation launched a digital media campaign and a hospital career exploration website in February. Dubbed “So Many Options,” the campaign is designed to share the wide range of work and career opportunities hospitals and health systems can provide, a press release states.

“Wisconsin hospitals are working hard to grow, recruit, retain and support the health care workforce necessary to sustain the high-quality health care Wisconsin citizens expect and deserve,” said WHA senior vice president of workforce and clinical practice Ann Zenk. “But even with intense effort, it is unlikely that the health care workforce can grow fast enough to meet the rising health care demand of an aging population.”

The WHA report also highlights research that shows a workforce increasingly frustrated by the increased time required for maintaining electronic health records.

“Addressing health care workforce shortages will require a concerted effort and sustainable immediate, mid-range and long-term solutions,” said WHA president and CEO Eric Borgerding in the release. “Health care organizations, educators, state regulators and elected officials must continue partnering to minimize outdated barriers and implement innovations to encourage, support and advance health care workers in their pursuit of fulfilling attainable and meaningful careers.”

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