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The New Health Care Economy: Can Supply Meet Demand?

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Imagine you just learned that you'll have health care coverage for the first time. You think, "Great, now I can go see a doctor." Then imagine you discover there's no one to take your x-rays, draw your blood, perform your EKG, provide the first ultrasound of your new baby, register you as a patient, or provide the nursing and other services that constitute the bulk of the time all patients spend in the system.

It's a scenario that could play out for all of us, if the supply of educated workers doesn't keep pace with the demand for services.

Here's a statistic that will surprise most people: over 90% of the health care system is made up of non-physician professionals and health care support workers. Even before health care reform passed, the Department of Labor Statistics was predicting shortfalls and/or increased demand in employment in many health care related occupations. The passage of health care reform, and the promise of millions of newly insured patients, means those employment demand predictions are significantly understated.

Right now, of the 14.5 million workers in the health care industry, there are approximately 11.5 million medical professionals and health care support workers serving approximately 265 million insured Americans. Guess what? If reform adds 30 million newly insured patients into the mix, with the increased demand for services their insurance provides, it will create a need for as many as 1,000,000 non-physician well educated workers just to maintain the current level of service.

Without those additional educated workers, the system won't work the way it should. It can't. Paperwork won't get processed, claims will be delayed, more errors in treatment and service will occur, and wait times will increase to unsustainable levels. Bottom line: the support system that's in place that allows physicians to treat patients could well collapse. And, if demand for workers greatly outstrips supply, labor costs will increase, eroding potential savings built into health care reform budget assumptions.

The solution is pretty clear: we need more medical professionals and health care support workers, and soon. Who are these people, and where do they come from? Where are they educated and trained? While they're from all walks of life and many educational institutions, as much as 50% of the graduates in these fields are from private sector career colleges and schools.

That so many come from career colleges and schools highlights the importance of these institutions as they relate to our health care economy. The question is, can our career colleges and schools educate and train the increasing number of students necessary to meet the expanding demands of our health care system?

Working with Congress, the US Department of Education and the balance of the higher education community, they can. Here's how.

First, some industries are permanently shrinking in the wake of the near collapse of the economy and millions of people desperately need to be retrained for new careers (retraining them for health care-related jobs would help). Federal regulators need to adequately study any proposed regulatory changes to ensure they do not threaten the availability of programs needed to create employment supply in areas where there is demand such as health care. Second, regulatory changes must be made consistently to ensure accountability to students and taxpayers alike. These changes must also enable students to make sound educational investment decisions. To be fair to all students, regulatory changes must be applied evenly across all sectors of higher education, not just to career colleges. Third, we must ensure continued access to funding for students who cannot otherwise afford post-secondary education and who opt for career college education instead of traditional or community college alternatives.

The new health care economy requires that these actions take place. If they don't, there is a real chance that the influx of new patients will overwhelm the system and bring it to its knees. It would be sadly ironic if the expansion of health care was not supported with an expanded and well-educated workforce causing the system to break down and become inoperable.

We at career colleges and schools are proud of the role we play in helping our health care system to function on behalf of the hundreds of millions of Americans who use it. We know the system needs help.

We stand ready to do our part.

Randy Proto is the President and CEO of the American Institutes school group, which specializes in health care career education and serves over 2,000 students annually. It includes the American Institute College of Health Professions, American Institute and American Institute School of Health Careers located in Florida, and the Fox Institute schools in Connecticut and New Jersey.