Health professionals and educators face industry-wide changes

Regional health care leaders no longer ask if their industry will see change in the near future. They already know the answer.

Practitioners face rising costs, as well an aging workforce that could lead to shortages in registered nurses and home-care aides within the next 15 years. With that, Whatcom County’s health care and health education sectors are preparing for the new care models they’re certain will come.

“The elements of health care reform have to happen, no matter what view you take on it,” said Cindy Burman-Woods, a workforce special projects director at Whatcom Community College. “The costs are driving it. Things have to change.”

More than 80 regional industry leaders met last May to plot the shape of the future northwest Washington health care workforce. They targeted challenges, including the unfolding federal health care law, the industry’s use of technology, the growing role played by home care and patients’ families, and the shift of focus that emphasizes preventive treatment.

Workforce shortages are among the more imminent concerns.

Registered nurses in Washington state are 55-59 years old on average. Researchers said that indicates a looming lack of nurses who can continue to work over the next several decades.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2027, nearly 90,000 registered nurses will be needed in Washington state—currently there are about 46,300. A dearth of between 30,000 and 50,000 home-care aides is also projected by 2030.

The aging workforce mirrors Washington’s growing population.

The state is expected to add nearly 1.7 million new residents by 2030, a growth rate of about 26 percent, according to the WWAMI Rural Health Research Center, one of six federally funded rural health centers.

One in five of those new residents will be at least 65. An older population could place stronger demands on Medicare and Medicaid. Health providers also expect to see higher rates of chronic illness.

Effects felt outside health industry

Company owners who provide health insurance should expect to see change, too, said Larry Thompson, executive director of Whatcom Alliance for Healthcare Access, a Bellingham-based nonprofit.

With federal reform and state initiatives to create new systems of health coverage, the medical insurance market is about to shift dramatically, Thompson said. The impact, he added, could amplify the already rising costs of care.

“Costs continue to be a huge concern of employers,” Thompson said. “There is a very pervasive feeling in the health care leadership of the community that they need to get the costs under control.”

Whatcom health leaders are in early stages of creating a countywide electronic health information exchange. When completed, the system will allow medical professionals from different offices to share data on a patient’s treatment history.

That would ensure patients don’t receive the same type of care from multiple providers. Health leaders hope it would also streamline communication between medical offices—a change the sector refers to as “moving from silos to systems.”

Thompson said better contact between providers would help save money.

“We duplicate a lot of services and efforts due to the fragmented nature of our health care system,” Thompson said.

More high-tech health education

For students in medical-training programs, access to technology is greater than ever before, said Cindy Burman-Woods at Whatcom Community College.

The college’s labs today are equipped with training mannequins able to closely mimic and even talk like real patients. Classrooms have video equipment allowing instructors to record students’ work, then play back footage of various exercises.

Virtual tools and simulations will likely be the future of health education, Burman-Woods said.

“The technology just keeps getting better,” she said.

Cutting-edge skills are vital for medical students to succeed in the industry. But Burnam-Woods said students are now expected to have more education than their predecessors.

Within the nursing industry, hospitals are beginning to look for new hires with additional credentials beyond a registered nursing degree, such as a Bachelor of Science in nursing, she said.

Providing training to meet those goals, particularly the high-tech components, is expensive. Burman-Woods spends a good deal of time securing both public and private grants for the school’s medical programs.

For now, the money is there.

“All funders, public and private, are aware of the pending shortage of health care providers, Burnam-Woods said. “They are working to request proposals for innovation and any equipment needs or training needs to increase access for diverse populations to enter the field.”

Synergies growing among providers

Another change in the industry is the trend of health providers combining forces to create larger, regional systems, said Gary Smith, regional manager of the Northwest Workforce Council in Bellingham.

“We’re seeing that happening with different medical groups in our area becoming aligned or affiliated with larger organizations,” he said.

PeaceHealth, the nonprofit Catholic health system that operates Bellingham’s St. Joseph Medical Center, announced in August it had signed a letter of intent to form a partnership with national provider Catholic Health Initiatives. If the partnership is made official by next summer, it will include 16 hospitals along with other care facilities, 26,000 employees and nearly 950 doctors. It is expected to generate annual revenue close to $4 billion.

Larry Thompson of Whatcom Alliance for Healthcare Access said while providers seek to increase the size of their systems, hospitals are beginning to judge their success on the outcome of treatments, rather than the profits they generated. The shift away from traditional business models is meant to cut costs while providing better care, he said.

Contact Evan Marczynski at or call 360-647-8805. 

This article was revised on Oct. 3, 2012. A sentence attributed to Cindy Burman-Woods noting that hospitals are beginning to look for new hires with additional credentials beyond a registered nursing degree, such as a Bachelor of Science in nursing, was altered for clarity.

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