On Health Care


May 1, 2006


Future of health care work force at stake

So, you are looking to give your kids some career advice? Have you thought about health care? In their own best interests, baby boomer parents are well advised to encourage their youngsters to pursue careers in health care, since work force shortages are straining a fragile health care system.

The shortage of nurses is well documented and hospitals throughout California are facing a critical need for these professionals. Increased efforts to recruit, train and retain nurses are having a modest impact on the shortage, which was exacerbated when California's nurse staffing ratio laws took effect a couple of years ago.

Now, shortages are looming in other critical sectors of the health care work force -- clinical laboratory scientists, diagnostic technicians and pharmacists are in short supply. For example, California will need nearly 700 clinical laboratory scientists per year for the next five years as the population ages and lab workers retire. Existing educational programs are expected to graduate 225 students annually. We are simply not producing enough trained workers to meet the demand.

Thanks to life-saving advances in medical technology, clinical laboratory scientists perform an ever-increasing range of diagnostic tests, from simple blood tests to genetic testing using sophisticated methods and state-of-the-art computers.

A shortage of clinical lab workers could lead to longer waits for test results, delays in conducting surgery and other procedures, increased wait times in emergency rooms and downsizing or closure of in-house hospital lab facilities -- resulting in increased time and cost for sending out labs.

California's hospitals are leading an effort, along with the state's universities, professional organizations and independent labs, to increase the number of students pursuing careers in clinical laboratory sciences. The Healthcare Laboratory Workforce Initiative (HLWI) sets out to address the severe shortage of clinical laboratory science workers. Through a $5 million campaign over the next five years, the initiative will provide educational grants and scholarships, and promote laboratory careers to prospective students.

In San Diego, a local effort is under way, led by the San Diego Workforce Partnership, to create and operate the San Diego Center for Collaborative Healthcare Planning. The center's goal is to increase the number of individuals being prepared to fill health care positions in the San Diego region. A skilled and diverse health care work force must be trained to meet the future health care requirements of all the region's residents.

The center is seeking funding from the California Endowment and other partners to bring additional funding and resources to the area for health care training and education programs, and create a pipeline of individuals choosing to pursue health care careers, starting as early as grades K-12.

It will be good business to develop our own health care work force, and it will pay off in the delivery of services, cost of those services and impact on our local economy.

San Diego's health care sector is a significant component of the regional economy. In 2004, approximately 81,000 people were employed in health care -- about 6 percent of the region's workers -- and there is tremendous additional impact through goods and services purchased locally.

Pharmaceutical companies must play a bigger role in supporting the efforts currently under way. Hospitals must step up their efforts with recruitment and retention, and our educational institutions must be positioned to provide the necessary training, with sufficient capacity, to give willing students a path to success. San Diego Center for Collaborative Healthcare Planning needs a broad base of financial support to move forward -- and local business with a vested interest in our region's long-term health care strategy can intensify their actions to meet that need.

The career of the future may be health care, and San Diego's ability to build capacity from within, as well as attract top quality nurses, clinical laboratory scientists and other health care professionals requires both a public and private commitment now to invest in that future.

Escoboza is president and CEO of the Healthcare Association of San Diego and Imperial Counties, a nonprofit organization representing more than 40 hospitals, health systems and physician groups in the two-county area. Send comments to editor@sddt.com. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.


May 1, 2006