Hospitals, health care sector show modest job growth

The industry as a whole seems to be experiencing a modicum of economic recovery, but some institutions still are struggling, surveys and reports show.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Dec. 21, 2009

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Health care facilities added more people to their payrolls in November, although the economic downturn is still taking its toll, according to several recently released reports.

"Health care and hospitals have been a stable source of employment. It's one of the areas of our economy where there is job growth," said Caroline Steinberg, vice president for trends analysis at the American Hospital Assn. "But individual hospitals can be very different. ... We cannot say that every hospital is adding staff."

For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released preliminary data Dec. 4 indicating that the unemployment rate dipped to 10% in November from a 25-year high of 10.2% in October. The change primarily was due to increases in hiring in the health care sector and temporary help services, the bureau said. Health care added 21,000 jobs in November, with 6,800 of them at hospitals. Approximately, 12,600 were added in the ambulatory care setting, including 3,800 in physician offices.

The numbers were adjusted to reflect seasonal variations.

The increases were lower than in prior years, however, and other surveys suggest less-than-positive economic trends. In November 2008, the health sector added 41,000 jobs, with hospitals contributing 10,500. And AHA data published last month indicate that tight finances remain an issue at some institutions.

The AHA surveyed 768 hospital chief executive officers in August and September. Approximately 69% reported moderate or significant increases since June in uncompensated care as a share of total gross revenues, and 44% said the number of patients seeking elective procedures had declined. In addition, 53% said inpatient admissions had gone down.

Because of these trends, 49% reported moderate or significant decreases in total margins. In response to these financial pressures, 51% said they had reduced staff, and 84% had cut administrative expenses.

Many of the numbers were similar to or better than those in the AHA's previous survey, encompassing 1,078 CEOs and released April 27.

Then, 70% noted a moderate or significant increase in uncompensated care as a percent of total gross revenues, and 59% said demand for elective procedures had declined. About 55% said inpatient admissions had gone down, and 65% noted a moderate or significant decrease in total margins. In addition, the April poll noted that 48% said they had reduced staff, and 80% reported cutting expenses.

"Hospitals are facing rising uncompensated care and a greater percentage of people on Medicaid," Steinberg said. "When people have lost their jobs, they don't buy as much stuff, but a lot of health spending is not discretionary. Demand doesn't fall nearly as much as the ability to pay."

Other recent surveys paint a mixed economic picture for the health care sector. One, released Dec. 2 by the nonprofit public interest research group Conference Board on the number of online advertised job vacancies, found that total listings increased by 106,500 in November. But the number of listings for health care practitioners and technicians dropped 36,000. Ads for health care support personnel dipped by 500. The report also found that a greater number of people were seeking jobs in the medical setting.

But a recent survey from AMN Healthcare Services, a medical staffing company, said 11% of hospital-based physician jobs were unfilled, as were 6% of nursing jobs.

"Monthly gains can only be described as sluggish," said Gad Levanon, PhD, senior economist with Conference Board. "We have yet to see a significant increase in employers' demand for labor, and, until we see job openings pick up, it will be hard to bring down the unemployment rate."

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