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Healthcare Staffing Solution a Gray Area

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, October 13, 2008

An advocacy group for older workers believes Gray-Americans can fill a big role in the solution to the healthcare staffing shortages that are plaguing the nation.

Cynthia Metzler, president and CEO of the Arlington, VA-based nonprofit Experience Works, says older workers—generally considered to be people age 50 or older—are excellent candidates to fill any number of jobs in the healthcare arena, including staffing medical, clerical, and administrative positions.

Why?

Well, for starters, there's a potentially large applicant pool, and it's getting bigger every day. In 2006, 37 million Americans were 65 or older. By 2030, that population will grow to 72 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. Of course, that aging population will include the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals practicing today.

Gray-Americans also tend to stay put. Once they get a job, they are far less likely to move elsewhere. And, Metzler says that contrary to popular belief, older workers aren't a significantly larger liability or health insurance risk because they tend to be more careful on the job.

And, they want to work, Metzler says. Fully one-third of retirees reenter the work force, usually because they need the money. Metzler says older Americans also possess a sense of pride and identity that comes with the job.

So, what's the holdup?

Metzler says one of the biggest obstacles against older workers is an unintentional ageism that relies on an out-of-date demographic. "It's a mindset that we've carried over from the last 20 years, a mindset that modern demographics won't allow to continue," Metzler says. "In many parts of the country you have a population that is aging in place and there aren't enough younger people coming along to satisfy those current job needs." Hospitals, physician groups, and other healthcare entities must understand the potential for these older workers, Metzler says.

Yes, it's unlikely that a 55-year-old person will go to medical school. However, that person may have a BS degree, and could possibly become a nurse's assistant or even an RN with a couple years of school and training.

Despite Metzler's enthusiasm, there are legitimate concerns that older workers might not be up to the physical demands that nursing requires. After all, we are hearing plenty of stories about nurses in their mid-40s who quit the field because of physical and emotional exhaustion.

Metzler says the physical demands of nursing and other healthcare jobs can be mitigated with a little planning. "Look at the jobs as they have been historically designed and see if they have to remain that way moving forward," she says. "Yes, somebody is going to have to be strong enough to move a patient, but I'm not sure that everybody on the ward needs to be able to do that."

So, there will have to be some adjustments made in the hiring process and job parameters if older Americans are to have a part.

"It has to be an attitude of looking at everybody based on skills and life experiences and potential," says Metzler, "and not have filters because somebody may have gray hair."


John Commins is the human resources and community and rural hospitals editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at jcommins@healthleadersmedia.com.
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