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Dire Shortage Seen in Allied Health Professionals

 |  By HealthLeaders Media Staff  
   September 23, 2009

California healthcare has put a big sign on itself that reads "Allied Health Workers Wanted Now."

To be exact, it needs to train about one million more people by the year 2030 to take jobs in the allied health professions, which excludes physicians and nurses. That's more than 11 states currently have in their total workforces.

With 605,153 allied health professionals now employed in about 50 types of skills—from medical assistants to lab technicians to dental hygienists—this so-called "hidden workforce" keeps the flow of patients moving through every type of care setting.

It includes physical therapists, physicians assistants, medical assistants, nursing aides, cardiovascular techs, ambulance drivers and emergency medical technicians and psychiatric aides.

But by 2030, the state will need to not only replace many of those 605,153 workers who retire, die, or choose to work elsewhere or in other occupations, it must train new workers to care for the growing number of senior citizens who will require care, to reach an allied professional workforce demand for 988,000.

That's according to a 35-page report released Tuesday under a grant from The California Wellness Foundation. It uses data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, and several agencies to document current and future workforce needs.

Susan Chapman, a nurse and director of Allied Health Workforce Studies at the University of California San Francisco, helped coordinate the report. She says the effort targets the state's education system, specifically community colleges, to help attract more students into allied health training courses.

The community college system faces a challenge though. Instructors could get paid more money actually doing the work than teaching. "Sometimes programs suffer from a lack of faculty to run them, and we need to figure out the best way to give those incentives."

It may be that the systems need to recruit allied health professionals to teach and pursue a clinical career simultaneously.

On top of that challenge, Chapman says, the state's budget crisis is reducing the systems' ability to offer the classes, which in many cases have relatively high equipment and material costs.

Chapman hopes that proliferation of advanced communication technologies may reduce some of this expense. For example, students in a number of smaller classes throughout the state's community college system may be able to attend the same class, as it's offered either on the Web or by video. That technology must be made available to those classrooms, however, she says.

The report added that the allied health sector workforce already generates a payroll of $23 billion, an amount that is expected to more than double every 10 years.

On the positive side, about half of the allied health professional jobs that will be required in the state by 2030 are entry-level positions, which don't require post-secondary training or certification. Those positions can be filled with people who have a high school education.

However, the rest of the workers will require more education. "However, researchers estimate that California's universities and community colleges will only have capacity to train 634,000 of the needed workers, between 63% and 79% of the allied workers the state will require," the report added.

"Unless California increases the capacity of its education system, by 2030 there will be between 170,000 and 375,000 jobs that must be filled either by out-of-state workers or by Californians who would be forced to leave the state to get the necessary training. Already today, there are allied health training programs with waiting lists of one year or more," according to the state.

Ambulatory care settings are the largest employer of allied health workers, far more than hospitals or nursing and residential care facilities.

The report concluded, "If the state does not provide sufficient training opportunities in allied health, this situation will represent a missed opportunity for hundreds of thousands of Californians looking for family-sustaining wages and job security."

Cheryl Clark is a senior editor and California correspondent for HealthLeaders Media Online. She can be reached at

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