In the United States, health care is one of the fastest growing job sectors in the country. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, in 2014, 11.8 million workers were employed in the health care industry, with 2.7 million of that workforce represented by registered nurses.
With the average age of nurses being 50 or older, and 30 percent of that workforce preparing to retire, public and private health care organizations across the country, including in Alaska, are bracing for a nationwide nursing shortage.
It’s not the first time this has happened. The health care industry experienced a similar nationwide nursing shortage in the 1970s and ’80s as more women entered the workforce with alternative career options than the traditional nurse, school teacher or secretary that their mothers or grandmothers had.
Alaska has not been immune to these national trends and experienced similar shortages during the ’70s and ’80s along with the rest of the country. Briefly during the ’90s and early 2000s the health care industry in Alaska recovered. But with an aging nursing population heading into retirement over the next decade, Alaska’s health care industry is turning to Alaska’s university to lead the charge in educating the next generation of nurses.
Answering industry’s call
Despite the state’s sudden economic downturn, the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. 2017 Three-Year Outlook Report projects that health care in Alaska will grow substantially. As demand increases for nursing professionals statewide, the University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Nursing, or SON, program is working to meet the industry’s needs.
“The next two years’ goals are to be responsive to the community’s needs,” said SON Director Marianne Murray. “It’s really important that we think statewide and not just Anchorage-centric.”
Which is exactly what she and newly appointed Vice Provost of Health Programs and Dean of the College of Health Jeffrey Jessee have been doing. Over the summer the two began a whirlwind statewide tour, meeting with UAA’s satellite campuses, health care organizations and leaders that will ultimately take them to all 14 of the program’s outreach sites to assess Alaska’s health care needs, and where SON programs can fill in the gaps.
One of the biggest gap-fillers according to Murray? An increase in faculty members, facility expansions and collaborations with health care stakeholders allowing SON to expand admissions, cohort sizes and graduate more nurses each year.
Retirement, aging baby boomers and health care regulations
According to the Journal of Nursing Regulation, there are several challenges contributing to the country’s impending nurse shortage.
The first two are “baby boomer” related. According to JNR’s report, starting in 2012 about 60,000 RNs have exited the workforce each year and it is predicted by the end of the decade more than 70,000 will be retiring annually.
Coinciding with RNs retiring is the estimated 76 million nationwide baby boomers, who are also retiring, living longer and seeking additional medical care. According to JNR, by 2030 all boomers will be 70 or older and the number of seniors in the U.S. will be over 55 percent.
With the aging of the massive baby boomer generation, Medicare enrollment is projected to grow to 80 million by 2030 and the demand for nurses will increase exponentially over the next 15 years.
In addition to baby boomer RNs retiring and the generation’s overall aging, two additional challenges include health care reform and projected physician shortages. Uncertainty in health care reform and potential changes to national programs like Medicaid could directly impact the health care industry’s ability to provide care to the nation’s urban and rural populations.
These factors will put strain on an industry currently already stretched thin, and in Alaska, the impacts will affect populations from Southeast to the North Slope.
Expanding SON’s reach
Both Jessee and Murray are taking a comprehensive approach in evaluating SON’s programs and have started creating internal and external goals to make changes within the next two years.
One example is an internal goal of increasing diversity of SON’s faculty and students.
“That’s starting to look at factors other than GPAs and test scores,” Jessee said.
He explains additional factors may include cultural competency and emotional intelligence.
“Over time — you can’t do this overnight — we’ll be adjusting our admission process to reflect a broader set of criteria.”
Jessee believes expanding SON’s admittance criteria will open the door to a wider pool of prospective students who might not have otherwise considered a career in nursing.
External goals are more focused statewide — taking in the feedback from health care industry leaders and what they need specifically in their communities and evaluating how they can incorporate those requests into SON’s programs.
Whether that’s shifting associate programs to baccalaureate programs, or focusing on rural nursing expansion. Murray and Jessee’s efforts in meeting with health care professionals will help shape the program at the main Anchorage and satellite campuses.
“It’s taking that feedback and asking, ‘are there things that we can do differently that better serve our students, our providers or the community?’” Jessee said.
Both Murray and Jessee are passionate and excited about expanding the university’s nursing program and emphasize the importance of graduating Alaska nursing cohorts so health care providers do not have to recruit from outside Alaska.
They know there is a lot of work to be done, but are confident the university can rise to the challenge, answer the industry’s call and develop Alaska’s next generation of nursing leaders.