MADISON – The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated Wisconsin health care workforce trends and served as a testing ground for how the state’s hospitals could better deliver health care, according to a new Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) report released Wednesday.

The WHA’s 2020 Health Care Workforce report included a detailed analysis of the pipeline of workers in a broad range of health care subspecialties. Entry-level positions like nursing assistants, practical nurses, and technicians registered some of the highest vacancy rates. Advanced practice clinicians also saw high vacancy levels. According to the report notes, COVID-19 also magnified the impact of these shortages.

The health care industry employed more than 110,000 people in early 2020, the WHA reported. The organization has more than 300 hospital and health care system members.

“Covid really provided an opportunity for a rapid proving ground for a variety of things, like telemedicine and a well-supported workforce,” said Ann Zenk, WHA senior vice president of workforce and clinical practice.

For example, as COVID-19 infection rates grew, the hospital workforce became teams to support each other and the entire organization. “You’d find billing staff and other support personnel stepping in to provide patient transport or screening at entrances. This freed up clinical personnel for patient care,” she said. 

The state’s hospitals made greater use of remotely consulting with patients (telemedicine) and remote patient monitoring on the technology front. Also, the increased demand for medical care leads to medical doctors calling on medical professionals to perform duties that would fall on medical doctors. Most notably, nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants.

Highlighting the ‘Silver Tsunami’

In particular, Wisconsin’s health care industry is dealing with what it calls the “Silver Tsunami”. Further, the aging state population trend is taking place at the same time that needed health care workers are retiring.

“It’s striking how Wisconsin is aging more rapidly than some other parts of the country,” Zenk said. The WHS report noted that by 2030, all of Wisconsin’s 72 counties would have at least 17 to 20 percent of their population’s age 60 and older. Also, that ten counties will have more than 40 percent of their population’s age 60+.

“Entry-level and advanced practice – both ends of the spectrum – are a concern,” Zenk said. “As health care leaders, we need to attract new health care professionals and retain the health care professionals we have.”

Many of the state’s hospitals are taking creative steps in recruiting and training new-entry-level medical personnel, she said. For example, existing employees, such as dietary staff, are encouraged to obtain paid technical school training. In order to become LPNs (licensed practical nurses) or medical technicians.

“Speaking as a nurse, myself, nursing is a very rewarding profession with a lot of pathways,” said Zenk. Health care jobs hold many valuable attributes according to younger demographics, including career portability and teamwork.

State, Local Solutions

State health regulators have already helped hospitals address shortages of health care professionals in some parts of the state. A 2013 state law allowed Graduate Medical Education (GME) grants for family medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, general surgery, and internal medicine programs.

Also, a new law passed by the Legislature in 2019 and signed by Gov. Tony Evers allowed the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) to provide grant funding to any residency specialty with a demonstrated need. Further, awarding six grants in 2020 to create and expand Wisconsin GME programs. In obstetrics, gynecology, and dermatology, two of those grants were a direct result of the 2019 policy change.

More recently, the DHS approved an emergency rule in response to COVID-19 that sped up licensing for out-of-state physicians to practice in Wisconsin. “That was a good strategy,” Zenk said. “We would like to see pathways like that become permanent.”

Zenk said it is also encouraging to see local school districts and technical schools offering a career pathways approach toward health care. The Racine Unified School District (RUSD) has created Academies in its three comprehensive high schools (Case, Park, and Horlick). Each academy pathway is a sequence of courses with the goal to help students prepare for a specific career area.

Gateway Technical College (GTC) has already boosted its capacity to train health care workers.

“The shortage of healthcare workers increases the risk for personal, societal, and economic impacts of every community. Gateway has taken steps to increase education and training capacity in several key health-related occupations such as licensed practical nursing and associate degree nursing pathways. This investment includes a new nursing facility on our Racine Campus to increase skilled healthcare workers in Racine County,” said Bryan Albrecht, GTC president, and CEO.

To read the full Wisconsin 2020 Health Care Workforce Report, visit: https://www.wha.org/MediaRoom/DataandPublications/WHAReports/Workforce/2020/Report/WHA-Workforce-Report-2020_web


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Paul Holley is retired from careers in journalism, public relations and marketing but not from life. These days, he pretty much writes about what he feels like writing. You may contact him directly at:...

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