As the Texas population grows and ages, serious chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease, chronic lung disease and arthritis, will increase dramatically. There will be an avalanche of need for health providers to care for these conditions at the same time our proportion of health professionals to the population declines.
According to the latest projections, the demand for health professionals in Texas soon will exceed the supply by 33 percent.
Health professionals include key groups, such as laboratory personnel, physician assistants, physical, occupational and respiratory therapists, speech and language pathologists, emergency medical and X-ray workers. They represent 60 percent of the Texas health care work force. Without major increases in funding, this gap will widen to alarming rates by 2020.
Schools of health professions throughout Texas have turned away thousands of qualified applicants annually because of limited capacity and faculty. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, there were more than 47,000 students with intended majors in health professions in 2009, but only 9,200 positions.
Many qualified students cannot be admitted to these programs. Texans cannot prepare for these skilled, high-paying careers because there is not enough capacity in higher education.
What if this hidden crisis continues to grow? Consider the following.
Mrs. Grace collapses on the floor one night after dinner. Her husband finds she is having trouble moving her right arm and leg, has difficulty speaking, and her mouth droops. He suspects she might be having a stroke. He calls 911, but the ambulance is slow to respond because they do not have enough emergency medical personnel.
When the Graces arrive at the emergency room, the physician on duty needs a scan of her brain to verify that Mrs. Grace is having a stroke before he can administer a drug that will minimize some of the damage to her brain. This drug only is beneficial if administered within an hour of the stroke. Time is critical, and it has been almost an hour since Mrs. Grace collapsed.
Her brain scan will be delayed because there are too few people working in radiology, and they are backed up. Another hour and a half goes by before the physician has the scan.
Mrs. Grace is stabilized, but she is unable to stand or use her right arm to feed herself. The doctor recommends a course of rehabilitation. Mr. Grace finds that she cannot be admitted to the local rehabilitation hospital for months because there are too few physical and occupational therapists and speech and language pathologists to meet the demand.
Mr. Grace knows the earlier the rehabilitation occurs, the better the outcome. The Graces’ only choice is a nursing home until intensive rehabilitation becomes available.
Legislation is being introduced in Texas to help recruit and retain health professions faculty.
There are programs to help repay student loans for physicians, nurses and physician assistants who work in rural and underserved areas of the state. These programs need to be expanded to embrace a larger group of health professionals.
The School of Health Professions at UTMB Health is embarking upon an ambitious plan to double its enrollment in the next 10 years. This will require considerably more resources, but we believe that it is possible. We will meet future challenges with determination, and we will work to make sure that the “Mrs. Graces” of Texas will have the care they need.
Elizabeth Protas is dean of the School of Health Professions.