August 5, 2005

Health Industry Faces Future Challenges

Will the demand for health care in the future outstrip the work force that must provide the very labor-intensive service?

Area health care providers say they don't have the answer, but they clearly see labor shortages as the prime challenge for the industry.

Sizable shortages already exist in nearly every field of health care as the industry wrestles to meet historic demand from an aging population, according to Bob Morr, vice president of the Indiana Hospital and Health Association, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit trade group.

A variety of funding issues, including the ongoing drain on the federal Medicare Trust Fund, will also challenge both health care providers and patients, experts say.

The challenge of investing in the latest state-of-the-art technologies also looms as a major challenge of the future.

As for the shortage of some health care workers, simply increasing wages won't fix the problem, said Morr.

"It's not like there is a whole bunch of nurses out there waiting to return if such-and-such of an offer were made to them," he said.

Many workers have grown tired of long hours and weekend shifts. Lifestyle changes today open a variety of new leisure-time opportunities to them. So they've switched to fields with more reasonable hours, according to Morr.

Some older nurses, he said, have left to work in other fields with more normal work hours.

Timothy Flesch, president and chief executive officer of St. Mary's Health System, observed that health care always has had its fair share of challenges.

"What is more acute today is the shortage of trained personnel," he said.

According to Flesch, shortages in some physician specialities are beginning to crop up.

"It's becoming increasingly hard to recruit in cardiology and in cardiovascular surgery... And we're seeing some difficulty in recruiting in anesthesiology," he said.

Flesch blamed "a very demanding lifestyle" that specialized medicine creates for its providers.

He said St. Mary's is working toward establishing more flexible scheduling as a way to attract the best and the brightest.

He said the hospital also is looking to bring in other trained people, including more licensed practical nurses, physician extenders and physician assistants.

Flesch recalled hearing providers 20 years ago in Chicago wondering how the then challenged health care industry would survive.

"In reality, we find ways," he said. "It's in that adapting that we find the reward for doing our job."

Derek Dunigan is the chief executive officer of Evansville-based Holiday Health Care Corp., which includes The Heritage Center off West Buena Vista Road.

He said he and his associates "continue to feel great about the future of longterm care."

He said he believes it is far too early to speculate on what may or may not happen where Medicaid is concerned in the future.

Nursing homes provide a service that Dunigan said is desperately needed by our aging population. He predicted there will be "a greater and greater need" for nursing homes.

Chris Goad, administrator of McCurdy Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, predicted a growing number of federal and state regulations in the health care industry.

"We now are more regulated than nuclear power plants," she said.

The increase in regulations present McCurdy's staff with more jobs to do but less time to do them, according to Goad.

Dr. Donald R. Lurye, chief medical officer at Welborn Clinic, said he believes defining the accountability for quality patient care will be a challenge for the health care industry.

He said if health care professionals don't meet the challenge insurance companies, government agencies and various consumers groups will define it for them.

Lurye noted that many of today's baby boomers are more inquisitive and concerned about the quality of care than past generations of patients.

Some get medical information from the Internet, which is fine as long as it is accurate, he said.

"People who are informed will take better care of themselves."

Dr. James Porter, a pediatrician, internist and vice president of medical affairs at Deaconess Hospital, said it's going to be an ongoing challenge for hospital doctors to communicate well with their patients' outside doctors.

"Most patients who come into Deaconess aren't patients of doctors in our employment. Yet all the doctors need each other," he said.

Porter predicted managing new technologies also will be a challenge.

"We're always cognizant of rising costs of health care. We evaluate a technology on whether it will make us more efficient and let us take better care of our patients," he said.

"If a new technology is something that will just leave us where we are, we don't invest in it," Porter said.