Study projects Wyoming nursing shortage

(The Northwestern.com) CASPER, Wyo. (WTW) — Ashley Woolworth planned to become a teacher.

But after moving to Wyoming in 2008, she discovered limited opportunities for a job in education. Woolworth liked helping people, so she changed her focus to nursing.

The 23-year-old is now enrolled in Casper College’s nursing program. When she graduates, she’ll almost certainly find a job. Nearly all students who complete the program find employment in their field, according to figures kept by the college.

“People are always going to get sick,” Woolworth said as she changed the dressing on a wounded mannequin. “People are always going to need someone to take care of them. So I knew it was a very secure job.”

Demand for health care workers in Wyoming is expected to increase over the decade as the state’s population ages. A first-of-its-kind report by the Department of Workforce Services projects Wyoming will add 5,700 health care jobs by 2020.

Another 22,365 openings will be created as health care workers retire, move or leave their jobs to care for family members, according to the report, which was released earlier this year.

The department has studied demand for certain health care jobs, like nursing, in the past. The new report, in contrast, takes a look at the entire system, projecting the need for everything from home health aides to dental hygienists.

“We don’t need to rely on anecdotes any longer to understand what the demand for labor is in the health care industry,” Tom Gallagher, who manages research and planning for the department, tells the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/GFRivW).

The report found Wyoming colleges, in many cases, are not producing enough workers to meet the demand for health care jobs. In 2009, for example, 444 people completed a degree to become a registered nurse. But the report projects the state will need to fill an average of 666 RN openings each year this decade.

Other shortages are predicted for physical therapists, dental assistants and pharmacy technicians, the data shows.

Colleges and employers can use the report to understand demand and address projected needs. The information is critical for the health care industry, since many of its professions require years of education, Gallagher explained.

Labor can move rapidly to where it is needed for some industries, like construction. That’s not the case with health care, he said.

“If we are not understanding what is in the pipeline and what the real need is, then we have a serious problem,” he continued. “It is not like we are missing a bulldozer operator. Because if you can’t deliver health care, you have a heck of a time sustaining your community. So the consequences are a little graver.”

The report is meant to prompt a discussion about health care needs, Gallagher said. But predicting trends can be challenging. The move toward preventive care and electronic records, for instance, could influence demand for certain jobs.

“It affects how we are going to configure the system,” he said. “But we are not exactly sure how it’s going to look.”

Even so, the study provides valuable information for college administrators, said Joseph Steiner, dean of the University of Wyoming’s College of Health Sciences. While the university wouldn’t start a new program based solely on the report, it will help officials plan for the future.

“It lets us have a picture of what the state’s needs are and what we can do to address those needs,” he said.

The university is currently discussing whether to develop a program for the technicians who perform laboratory tests. The study predicts the state may need to fill more than 500 such jobs this decade.

“If you look at the workforce report, it shows it is a need that is not being met,” Steiner said.

The paper also shows Wyoming’s health care workforce is aging. If Wyoming doesn’t recruit enough new workers, it could face shortages down the road, said Mary Burman, dean of the university’s nursing school.

The state faces significant challenges when trying to address shortages in nursing. Wyoming has only a limited number of nurses who are qualified to teach. Most of its hospitals lack the size to accommodate large groups of student nurses.

Still, nursing schools around the state are doing what they can to accommodate more students, Burman said. The university is starting a new doctorate of nursing degree that will help address the growing demand for primary care and mental health providers.

“People are very aware of the demand in Wyoming,” she said.

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