On average, healthcare created 25,000 jobs each month in 2017. Even though that pace is off from 2016, the sector remains the most powerful job creator in the U.S. economy.
Healthcare job growth slowed in 2017, but it still accounted for 15% of the 2 million new jobs created in the U.S. economy last year, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
Preliminary figures from BLS show that the healthcare sector employed nearly 16 million people at the end of 2017, and created 300,000 new jobs over the past 12 months, including: 206,000 new jobs in ambulatory care: 76,000 jobs in hospitals; and 18,000 in nursing and residential care.
In 2016, healthcare created nearly 380,000 jobs, averaging more than 31,000 new jobs each month.
Susan Salka, president and CEO of San Diego-based AMN Healthcare, said the healthcare sector continued to see strong job growth in 2017 in the face of significant headwinds.
"Last year was rife with uncertainty about healthcare policy, but much greater pressures are driving demand forward," Salka says. "We are facing a future of significant healthcare workforce shortages, and the industry must face that challenge."
Salka says the continued robust job growth "shows that the most important workforce issues for our industry are the long-range drivers of healthcare demand, which include the aging of the U.S. population, the improving U.S. economy, and the shortages of almost all types of healthcare workers."
Healthcare job growth numbers may fluctuate in the months and years ahead, Salka says, but the overall trajectory is still going up.
"Our aging population, improving economy, increasing healthcare job openings, and the Baby-Boomer retirement tsunami hitting our industry will push up job growth in 2018 and beyond," she says. "So, whether or not there are slight fluctuations in growth, the future for healthcare jobs is very high demand and not enough supply to fill that demand."
Travis Singleton, a senior vice president at Dallas-based Merritt Hawkins & Associates, is not so sure that growth can continue at the current pace.
"It is unrealistic to think that healthcare job growth could continue on its impressive trajectory with the uncertainty created by the partial dismantling of the Affordable Care Act along with no detailed replacement," he said. "This puts healthcare dollars in question and that will blunt expansion."
Singleton says the uncertainty over the direction of healthcare has put many systems in a holding pattern. "Expansion in particular is a hostage to potential sources of reimbursement," he says. "The industry is waiting to see where the dollars are coming from particularly with Medicare/Medicaid and indigent care."
"The one exception tends to be the safer fee-for-service care that you would typically see in ambulatory settings," Singleton says. "You also see similar growth patterns in segments like retail and telehealth as they are less reliant on reimbursement."
Salka says she expects that the fastest area for job growth within healthcare will remain in ambulatory care, the ongoing trend for several decades. In 2017, ambulatory care averaged 17,000 new jobs each year, compared with 6,300 new jobs in the hospital sector.
"Healthcare is changing to value-based care to prevent people from being hospitalized, and you can see it throughout the industry," she says. "We will continue to see the greatest jobs growth in urgent care, clinics, home healthcare, diagnostic centers and similar providers. However, hospital employment grew every month last year and will continue to be a major employer."
Singleton says the continued hiring in the face of so much uncertainty shows that patient demand trumps other concerns.
"If most hospitals and health systems could just tap the breaks all together and wait for a certain direction they would, but the shear patient demand dictates that they still add personnel," he says.
"The economy, aging demographics, the push to meet patients where they live (convenient care), and the expansion of healthcare coverage mean a fairly healthy industry overall."
John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders.