As it’s long been known, the supply chain of healthcare professionals, particularly nurses, is facing an historic shortfall in the coming years. A 2015 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, published in 2015, cites five primary reasons for the nursing shortage. We touched upon the first reason—the astronomical rate of retirement of Baby Boomers, averaging 4 million per year through 2030—in Part 1 of this series .

It’s really a one-two punch: The growth in the number of aging Boomer patients, combined with the massive retirement of healthcare professionals and an aging workforce who will retire soon after, could deliver severe body blows to the healthcare industry and the economy.

Here in Part 2 we’ll focus on how the aging American population, because of its need for more access to healthcare services, is contributing to the nursing shortfall.

The “Healthiest” Generation?

Plenty of people are under the misconception that Boomers are healthier than their predecessors.

Mmm, not so much.  A 2013 study, ironically subtitled “The Healthiest Generation?” found that “despite their longer life expectancy over previous generations, US Baby Boomers have higher rates of chronic disease, more disability, and lower self-rated health than members of the previous generation at the same age.”

Compared to demographically similar samples of prior generations, Baby Boomers exhibited

  • More obesity,
  • More hypertension and greater use of hypertension medication,
  • Less frequent regular exercise,
  • Higher rate of moderate drinking,
  • More common hypercholesterolemia and more than 10 times greater use of medication to treat it, and
  • Greater likelihood of diabetes and of taking medication for it.

Sure, because Baby Boomers smoke less than their predecessors did, they incur less emphysema and are less likely to suffer a myocardial infarction. And Baby Boomers’ overall rate of cancer is not significantly higher. So there’s that.

Challenge and opportunity

“By 2029,” H&HN reported, “when the last round of Boomers reaches retirement age, the number of Americans 65 or older will climb to more than 71 million, up from about 41 million in 2011, a 73 percent increase, according to Census Bureau estimates.”

In response to this need, health care jobs simply must be created. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that through 2026, “Health care industries and their associated occupations are expected to account for a large share of new jobs projected through 2026, as the aging population continues to drive demand for health care services.”

We already see the trend in places like Sedgwick Co., Kan. Since the year 2000, that county has seen a 26 percent increase in health care employment even as employment overall has remained flat. The trend is expected to continue for decades as the Boomers retire.

By the way, the economic effects of the Boomer wave will be monumental. Financially, Boomers are notoriously unprepared for retirement. Many will need to continue working, often without benefits, because most will work part time. Unfortunately, fewer part-time jobs will be available as companies continue to shed low-skill jobs to automation. That will place unprecedented pressure on Medicare and Medicaid.

As a group, Boomers have less money than believed, meaning they’ll be less able to pay into Medicare as enrollees. “The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that those boomers born between 1946 and 1955 lost 28 percent of median net worth during the Great Recession as of 2010, while boomers born after that lost 25 percent of median net worth.”

Because of that, the surging numbers of retirees has been dubbed the “pig in the python” as it moves through the system, ballooning the cost of Medicare and exploding the national deficit.

A dearth of clinicians

Most elderly people will show more than one disease on their death certificates. Our healthcare system currently is not well suited to effectively coordinate care for multiple chronic conditions that typically ail the elderly. Specialized geriatricians will come into ever-greater demand, with an estimated 33,000 needed by 2030. Currently there are about 8,800 certified practitioners.

The current workforce is already too small. Gen Xers and Millennials entering the profession today are demanding more humane, manageable workloads, even a 35-hour work week. Also, the shortfall extends beyond nurses and doctors to include home health aides and personal care aides.

Bottom line: We will need 1.6 million new positions by the year 2020. And we’re not yet on a path to achieve that goal.

Reasons for optimism

Every cell in the healthcare spreadsheet is a pain point needing relief. This is why healthcare professions are projected to experience some of the greatest growth in new jobs through 2026.

New care models, combined with innovations in facility design and advances in technology, mobile and telehealth, hold the promise of delivering elder and end-of-life care to numbers of people not imagined since the tidal wave in neonatal care in the 1950s and ‘60s. But ahead of developing new efficiencies in delivering services, innovators and entrepreneurs will be challenged to devise new solutions for supporting and verifying the education of the next generations of professionals.

These are among the challenges and opportunities that tekMountain, one of America’s leading entrepreneurial and innovation centers, is committed to monitoring, exploring and planning for. Watch here for forthcoming posts about the nursing deficit and the path through it that tekMountain is blazing.



This blog was produced by the tekMountain Team of Sean AhlumAmanda Sipes, and Zach Cioffi with lead writer Bill DiNome.

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