Health care hiring wobbles in March

Demand for some clinical workers softens, although the call for physicians remains high.

By — Posted April 12, 2012

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Physician offices and hospitals hired fewer people in March than they had in previous months, reflecting an overall decline in U.S. job growth in the month. However, demand for hiring physicians remained strong, analysts said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics April 6 employment report, 26,000 of the 120,000 jobs added to the economy in March were in health care. This was down from the revised total of 240,000 created in the economy as a whole in February, including 42,000 in health care. Of the health care jobs added in March, 7,600 were in physician offices, a decrease from the 9,000 added in February. Hospitals created 13,300 new jobs in February but only 8,100 in March (link).

“We remain bullish for the rest of the year, but things are still bumpy,” said David Cherner, MPH, managing partner of Health Workforce Solutions based in San Francisco. His organization’s Labor Market Pulse Index, released April 6, fell 8% from 52.9 in the fourth quarter of 2011 to 48.8 in the first quarter of 2012. The index measures health care hiring in 30 large metropolitan areas (link).

Economists had expected at least 200,000 new jobs overall in March and blamed the tepid rise on seasonal spring hiring pushed into previous months because of an unusually warm winter, and the effect of rising gas prices. While economists debate whether March was a one-month blip after the economy gained an average of about 250,000 jobs a month over the previous three months, analysts said health care hiring could be hindered in the short term by uncertainty over the fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Supreme Court, which held hearings in March on a lawsuit seeking to overturn the act, most likely will not announce a decision until June.

The BLS statistics as well as those from Health Workforce Solutions do not break things down by occupation, but there are other numbers that suggest some health care professions are more affected than others. According to the monthly report on help-wanted ads released April 2 by the Conference Board, the number of listings for health care practitioners and technicians declined by 18,800 to 578,100. This category includes physicians, but analysts say the trend was primarily driven by decreases in the call for registered nurses, occupational therapists, speech pathologists and physical therapists.

A paper in the December 2011 Health Affairs found that the registered nurse supply had grown faster than expected (link). Another study in the March 21 New England Journal of Medicine stated that because of the recession, “the decade-long national shortage of RNs appears to have ended.” (link)

However, Cherner said, “There’s still a humongous need for primary care physicians, and will be in the foreseeable future.”

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