What if I told you there are hundreds of great paying jobs in Missouri and no one available to fill them? What if I told you that this was just the tip of the iceberg, that thousands of these jobs will continue to become available over the next several decades? What if I told you that the inability to fill these positions will have a detrimental effect on the quality and availability of health care to the citizens of our state? And what if I told you hundreds of highly qualified students seeking admission to University of Missouri degree programs to prepare them to fill these jobs are turned away each year because of a lack of space to accommodate them?
At a time when unemployment is soaring, manufacturing facilities are closing and attempts to attract new industries to Missouri have not yielded great returns, the health care sector is still hiring. Why? Because there is a huge shortage of qualified professionals. The other irony is that with all the talk in Washington about health care reform, there aren’t enough health care professionals to deliver care. For reform to be successful, building the health care work force must become part of that discussion as well.
As the dean of the largest public school of health professions in Missouri, the University of Missouri School of Health Professions, I hear the same complaint from clinic and hospital administrators, school districts, skilled nursing facilities and health industry leaders many times a week: “We need more of your graduates.”
The shortage of the diagnostic, imaging and rehabilitation health care professionals in the “allied health professions” has been called the silent health care crisis. With the aging society, rise in chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes and asthma and the skyrocketing diagnoses of autism disorders, more allied health professionals like physical and occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, imaging and respiratory care professionals and medical technologists are needed to provide the care the public needs now and in the future.
The shortages are alarming. According to Ed O’Neil, director of the University of California-San Francisco Center for Health Professions, and a leading national expert on health care work force, the allied health shortage is projected to reach 2.5 million workers by 2025. O’Neil has observed that “(A)s important as shortages in pharmacy, medicine, and even dentistry might become, they will ... fail to reach the depths of the looming crisis in the allied health professions."
The allied health disciplines represent great jobs for Missouri. Our undergraduates report an average annual starting salary of around $45,000 with graduate students reporting an average starting salary of around $60,000. It’s not uncommon for new graduates to start in the $80,000 range. Ninety percent of our students are Missourians and more than 80 percent of our graduates remain in Missouri. Training Missourians to care for Missourians represents tax revenue and business revenue for Missouri — real dollars and cents that make economic development sense for our state.
Why is MU turning away qualified students? For the School of Health Professions, it’s all about capacity. We’re out of space in our 1960s dormitory home, and each year we are forced to turn away about as many students as we accept into our professional programs. Nonetheless, I’m proud to say some of MU’s finest graduates pass through our doors and go on to careers to serve the public.
So what’s the solution? Rather than focusing entirely on attracting new jobs and industry to Missouri, why not fill some of those hundreds of unfilled allied health positions in Missouri clinics, health care facilities and schools? To do so will require innovative solutions to solving our capacity issue and an investment in new facilities.
Providing outstanding health care for all Americans is not just a national issue, it is a Missouri issue that affects all Missourians. It is time to increase, not decrease, support for higher education, with special emphasis on supporting those degree programs that will bring improved personal health to our citizens and foster economic recovery for our state. We ought to take heed to Ben Franklin’s sage advice that “an ounce of prevention in worth a pound of cure.” The window of opportunity to prevent a health care work force crisis in Missouri is narrowing at an alarming rate, but if we move quickly with the right strategic investments, we can avoid an incurable prognosis so all may be assured a healthier tomorrow.
Richard Oliver, Ph.D., is dean of the University of Missouri School of Health Professions.