Koelemay's Kosmos

Doug Koelemay



May the Healthforce Be With You

Without waiting for government to study the problem yet again, Northern Virginians are expanding their healthcare workforce.


One of the largest problems in government is a tendency to study problems to death while things get worse. Name a recent year in Virginia and there is a tax commission or transportation study group with recommendations sitting on a shelf. Another problem is the attempt to shove challenges to a different level of government rather than tackle solutions straight up. Try to follow the bouncing ball among federal, state and local governments on education funding, standards and quality, for example, or on water policy and the Chesapeake Bay.


But correcting chronic shortages of nurses and allied health professionals (health information technologist, physical therapists, diagnostic imaging specialists, respiratory therapists, etc.) at a time when both the general population and numbers of aging citizens demanding care are exploding just can’t wait for more study or jurisdictional jockeying. New training facilities, faculty and enrollments to secure professional credentials take time. New healthcare workers need to build strong foundations in math and science before specialized training can begin.


That’s what makes the NoVaHealthFORCE action agenda announced in late June both unique and a possible model for successful initiatives in other regions of Virginia. An alliance of hospitals, businesses, the community college, a university and the regional workforce investment board in the Commonwealth’s most prosperous region documented the need for health care workers, set out a strategy and detailed specific actions for stakeholders, including state government, higher education and the private sector. The prescription? Change!


“The shortage of health care workers is a major problem in virtually every community, often at crisis level, usually growing, and very often ignored,” notes Dr. Robert Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) and the chairman of the alliance.


The Northern Virginia Health Care Workforce Alliance identified a critical shortage of health care professionals in Northern Virginia right now. The region is 2,800 health workers short in 24 job categories. About one health care job out of eight is unfilled now. Circumstances left unchanged would see that shortage explode to more than 16,000 unfilled health care jobs in the region by 2020. The alliance documented the need with a definitive qualitative analysis conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and financed by five hospitals, NVCC and others.


In Dr. Templin’s words, “Future needs may not be served due to the simple fact that there are too few people to provide health services.”


Alliance steering committee member Doug Poretz of Qorvis Communications calls the findings “the perfect storm of demographics.” A rock bottom current unemployment rate of two percent, projected 33 percent growth in Northern Virginia’s population by 2020, accelerating growth in retiring baby boomers who could demand six times the number of inpatient days as the average citizen, and retirements of current health care workers all converge. Similar storms rage in every other region of the Commonwealth, too, which is why healthcare workforce should be on the list of debate topics for Virginia political candidates in 2005.


Gov. Mark R. Warner immediately called the work “outstanding” and said he looked forward to discussing the findings and recommendations of the alliance. But the fact is that NoVaHealthFORCE is already past the general discussion stage. The alliance outlined a long-term, business-driven, sustainable strategy to close healthcare worker gaps that, not incidentally, also would tap New Americans and underemployed workers for new careers.


The plan strives to retain more existing workers in the region, increase the region’s nursing graduates by 80 percent and allied health graduates by 50 percent and distribute more healthcare workers to the faster-growing southern and western edges of Northern Virginia.


Eight workgroups of the alliance already have worked with experts in health care, higher education, public schools, local governments, social service agencies, civic groups, technology businesses and others to formulate a detailed action agenda. First up are directions for additional public and private investments in everything from salary increases to retain health professions faculty to “fast track” educational pathways to expand education facilities.


Why? Northern Virginia already captures the 440 nurse graduates it turns out each year, for example, yet a shortage of over 1,000 exists now and one out of every 30 nurses retires annually. Numbers of nurse and allied health graduates need to increase by 600 or more each year, but George Mason University and NVCC don’t have the capacity now to meet that demand. A new joint training center in Loudoun or Prince William County would help. So will a commitment by alliance members to raise $3.3 million over four years to fund scholarships, faculty endowments, outreach programs and facility feasibility studies.


Outreach programs for students at secondary and middle schools are to build interest in healthcare careers while there is still time for students to get the basics they need and a chance to try things out. The superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools, for example, is inviting other area superintendents to discuss one or more magnet high schools in health care and life sciences. A new center for healthcare technology and electronic medical records would help. The regional technology council is looking to convene a healthcare and technology summit, identify advanced technology solutions and help define jobs of the future from health information technologist to pharmacogenetics counselor -- an expert who could provide guidance for treatment based on an individual patient’s genetic profile. Call him the Gene Pool Boy for short.


“Our goal is to solve Northern Virginia’s critical health care workforce shortage and become a model for other communities large and small, Dr. Templin suggests. “Everyone can win. Industry gets workers. Businesses get a tool that will help control healthcare costs. People get better access to better care. Workers and potential new workers get the opportunity to participate in careers with a bright future.”


But high on the list of priorities is a more general objective, continuing a truly collaborative effort among regional businesses and groups on a problem that affects all components of community life. As syndicated columnist Neal Pierce has pointed out time and again, communities that work together to solve problems share one great characteristic -- the determination to work together. If Northern Virginia can hold a community focus that cuts across counties, cities, institutions, companies, consumers and workers, it will have an alliance for the future with the power to improve far more than just health care.


In the meantime, may the www.NoVaHealthFORCE.com be with you.


-- July 11, 2005















Contact info


J. Douglas Koelemay

Managing Director

Qorvis Communications

8484 Westpark Drive

Suite 800

McLean, Virginia 22102

Phone: (703) 744-7800

Fax:    (703) 744-7994

Email:   [email protected]


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