California Lacks Health Professionals Other Than Doctors, Nurses

Doctors and nurses aren’t the only ones in short supply in California’s health care landscape.

Physician assistants, lab technicians, medical records personnel and others in the group collectively known as “allied health professionals” are scarce as well.

Doctor and nurse shortages in California are fairly well chronicled. The University of California, which hasn’t opened a medical school in more than 40 years, is planning to open two new med schools — at UC-Riverside and UC-Merced — to help produce more physicians.

A survey released last month shows a relatively high level of awareness among California registered voters that the state is facing a shortage of nurses. Nearly seven in 10 of the state’s voters (69%) say they have seen, read or heard something about the scarcity of nurses, according to the survey by Field Research.

By contrast, there is significantly less awareness that the state also faces a shortage of other health professionals. Only 24% of voters statewide report having seen, read or heard anything about this problem, according to the survey.

“That was relatively low,” said Mark DiCamillo who helped conduct the survey for Field Research. “I’d say that discrepancy — the 69% to 24% — was one of our most interesting findings.”

Survey Shows Californians

The field survey of 800 registered voters in May showed Californians have “high levels of concern” about the potential for staff shortages in the state’s health care professions.

More than three in four (76%) report being either very concerned or somewhat concerned about the shortages. Many voters give their state and local elected officials poor marks in addressing the problem, with three times as many (38%) saying they are doing a poor or very poor job as feel they are doing an excellent or good job (12%).

There is a strong preference among the voting public (69% to 6%) to reduce the health worker shortages by attracting and training more workers from within California rather than bringing in more workers from out of state.
The poll was commissioned by Fenton Communications of San Francisco through a grant from the California Wellness Foundation.

State University System Addresses Shortages

While the UC system cranks up its doctor-making machinery, the California State University system is addressing nursing and other health care professional shortages on a variety of fronts.

“California needs more nurses than community colleges, CSU and the UC can presently provide,” said Keith Boyum — associate vice chancellor of academic affairs for the CSU system, which includes 23 campuses and 7 satellite centers.

“There are three ‘kinks in the garden hose’ that describe our problems,” Boyum said. “The first and most important is receiving sufficient funding from the state. Nurse training is unusually expensive due to clinical learning requirements, and accreditor-mandated small classes that turn out high quality and well-trained professionals,” Boyum said.

“The second and also very important ‘kink’ is that we have a very hard time finding faculty to teach in nursing programs,” Boyum said. “The University of California produces a very limited number of new Ph.D.’s in nursing, and CSU competes with the UC itself and with major health care providers, and with others, for these people.”

CSU is backing a bill (SB 1288) by Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena) which would allow CSU to offer a nursing doctoral degree and would expand the field of potential instructors in nursing schools. The bill was shelved this year but CSU officials hope to revive it next year.

The third “kink” in the CSU production line for health professionals pertains to space requirements on campuses and in hospitals for clinical training, Boyum said.

CSU Master Programs

The CSU system is offering health-related degrees through its Professional Science Master’s programs, described as “innovative, interdisciplinary graduate programs preparing individuals in shortage fields.”

The majority of the CSU programs are in health care, which is defined to include such services as medically-related counseling, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and medical diagnostics.

“The CSU Professional Science Master’s program is on target to grow to 30 programs over the next three years, with 24 of these in health care and the biosciences,” said Joan Bissell, administrator in the CSU chancellor’s office.

“There are significant shortages in these science-based positions in the health care industry, and the CSU is making a concerted statewide effort to address it,” Bissell said.

CSU has received $1.3 million in support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to establish new programs that address science-based professional fields in high demand. Of the 16 Professional Science Master’s programs associated with the Sloan grant, 13 are in health care or the biosciences.

Other CSU partners in this effort are the California Healthcare Institute and several health care companies, associations and foundations.

Training in Emerging Fields

In addition to filling shortages in traditional health care professions, CSU programs are also geared to address new training needs in emerging fields.

The MS degree in genetic counseling at CSU-Stanislaus, for instance, prepares people for genetic counseling roles at hospitals and other health care agencies.

“Graduates are trained in diagnostic techniques related to genetic diseases, their modes of transmission, recurrence and risk,” Bissell said. “They are prepared to provide counseling to individuals and families as they cope with the presence of genetic disease.”

Another Professional Science Master’s program emphasizing interdisciplinary training for new health care fields in significant demand is under development at CSU-Northridge.

“The MS in Assistive Technologies and Recuperative Therapies is being developed at Northridge in large part to address the needs of recuperative agencies and medical facilities as they provide assistance to the handicapped and disabled,” Bissell said.

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