Graying population prompts debate on adequacy of nation's health care labor force

September 06, 2000

People aged 85 and older make up the fastest-growing age group in the country. Today, there are 3 million men and women in this category; by 2030, there will be more than 8 million.

These demographic changes warn of a coming crisis in the health care labor force: As the population ages, demand for health care services will rise dramatically, but there will be fewer workers aged 16 to 64 to meet that demand.

"How can we meet the challenges of an aging society? How do we face an aging health care labor force? How can we increase a declining pool of potential health care workers? How will market forces affect the quality and size of the necessary labor pool?" asks Lynn Martin, former secretary of labor and chair of a panel of business executives, policymakers and academics convened by the College of Nursing Nursing Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The panel will meet three times between September and March to launch a national dialogue on the adequacy of the nation's health care labor force in light of the graying population. The panel plans to issue a report by April. The first meeting is Sept. 13 at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois, 300 E. Randolph St., Chicago.

The agenda for the meetings includes demographic trends, the health care needs of the elderly, the adequacy of the education and training of health care professionals and the long-term sustainability of the health care labor force to meet the needs of the elderly.

"Many policy analysts are talking about getting more nurses into the mix, or more physicians trained as primary care doctors, or more people into the allied health professions," said Mary Jo Snyder, director of the Nursing Institute. "But there has been no interdisciplinary inquiry into the shortages we face in our nation's health care labor force over the long term. The panel has been convened to begin that inquiry."

"The issues surrounding the future of the health care labor force require that we move away from thinking about health care labor in terms of nurses or physicians or allied health professionals and that we begin thinking in terms of demographic changes and demands, appropriate levels of care, and appropriate venues for care," said Noreen Sugrue, senior research analyst at the Nursing Institute. "We need to think of health care labor as a team whose components must all be in sync if adequate care is to be delivered."

Panel members represent varying viewpoints from academia, the health care industry and the nonprofit sector. In addition to Martin, the members are: Edwin Artzt, chairman emeritus of Proctor and Gamble; Paul Booth, assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; Richard Corlin, president elect of the American Medical Association; Mary Kathryn James, president of the National Federation of Licensed Practical Nurses; Richard Kaplan, professor of law at the University of Illinois; Leslie Margolin, senior vice president for workforce development at Kaiser Permanente; Kweisi Mfume, executive director of the NAACP; Abner Mikva, professor of law at the University of Chicago; Len Nichols, principal research associate at the Urban Institute; Father Michael Place, executive director of the Catholic Health Association; Sara Rix, senior policy advisor at the American Association of Retired Persons; Jim Smith, senior economist at RAND; and Louis Sullivan, president of the Morehouse School of Medicine. Joan Shaver, dean of the UIC College of Nursing, is the convener.

Some of the statistics and trends the panel will consider include the following:

* Currently, more than 20 percent of people aged 70 and older have unmet health care needs.

* In 1998, minorities made up 16 percent of the elderly population. By 2030, they are projected to be 25 percent of the elderly population.

* Four percent of persons aged 65 and older live in nursing homes, and the majority of those residents are women.

* While life expectancy at age 65 is higher for whites than for African-Americans, at age 85, it is slightly higher for African-Americans than for whites.

* The number of white non-Hispanic workers, as a proportion of all workers, is expected to decline from 75 percent (in 1998) to 64 percent in 2025.

* By 2025, Hispanics are projected to be 17 percent of the labor force, the second largest group.

* If there are not enough health care providers, then family members-historically, women-will fill the gaps. The increased responsibility may mean that these caregivers leave the work force, at a time when the nation will least be able to afford it, or that their productivity in the workplace decreases.

* Population estimates suggest that even as the number of elderly is increasing, the nation will experience increased fertility rates, producing more children. Those caught in the middle will be squeezed in terms of finances and other resources while caring for dependents at both ends of the life spectrum.

"The panel's work on these issues will be the first step in an important public dialogue leading to considered action to ensure that the health care needs of Americans are met in the first half of the 21st century," said Shaver.
Note: Media must register to attend the Sept. 13 opening session (10 - 11 a.m.)

The Nursing Institute-at the UIC College of Nursing, one of the top 10 nursing schools in the country-focuses on health care issues, including the labor force, health care delivery, practice and professional development.

With 25,000 students, the University of Illinois at Chicago is the largest and most diverse university in the Chicago area and is one of only 88 national Research I universities. Located just west of Chicago's Loop, UIC is a vital part of the educational, technological, and cultural fabric of the entire metropolitan region. It is one of the three main campuses of the University of Illinois, which is internationally renowned for scholarship and innovation. Visit and for more information.

University of Illinois at Chicago

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