By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – As a new year unfolds and employers in all business sectors ponder how to make 2020 successful, the task of finding, training and keeping enough workers is often at the top of the list.

Health care is no exception to the “new normal” of building a workforce. In fact, it may be more susceptible to a double-edged demographic sword than other industries.

Not only are people who work in health care growing older along with the rest of us, the general aging of society means there are more seniors in need of care at precisely the same time many well-trained medical providers are nearing retirement age themselves.

Confronting workforce demands in health care was the topic of a December report by the Wisconsin Hospital Association, as well as a common theme in four focus group discussions held in October and November by the Wisconsin Healthcare Business Forum. The findings point to the need for health care to get smarter about how it finds and retains a skilled workforce, and the need to make better use of technology to confront worker shortages while enhancing quality to containing costs.

The Wisconsin 2019 Health Care Workforce Report is an annual WHA effort to chart supply and demand within the industry, examining employment trends within specific medical professions and forces driving the need for care. Simple population math is chief among the reasons why demand for health care services is expected to increase. The number of people 65 and older in Wisconsin is predicted to grow by 48% by 2032 – and the number of people 75 and older by 75%. Older people generally require more care, especially if they’re touched by chronic diseases.

Curbing obesity, improving blood pressure control, controlling cholesterol and glucose levels and clamping down on smoking help manage health for people of all ages. With longevity, however, comes a different set of health care challenges – especially in cases where long-term care becomes necessary, and in situations when mental health needs are more acute than the physical. There are important differences between rural and urban care settings, as well.

The WHA report showed the number of open jobs in health care rivals the vacancy rate in any industry, and particularly in those medical professions considered entry level or requiring less training. “Vacancy rates for CNAs returned to double digits in 2018, and these rates are even higher in post-acute care settings,” the report noted. The top five vacancy rates for the studied year were within the ranks of CNAs, nurse practitioners, licensed practical nurses, surgical technicians and physician assistants.

In small-group discussions held by the Wisconsin Healthcare Business Forum, salary competition and the need for 24-7 staffing were described by participants as reasons why it can be hard to find and keep CNAs. As one focus group member in Marshfield said: “(CNAs) sometimes can get paid more and work better hours at a fast-food restaurant. People have choices.”

Focus group participants in Marshfield, Reedsburg, Milwaukee and Wauwatosa included people who worked in health care but also patients, employers who provide health insurance, community leaders and more. All agreed the competition for workers is stiff and not likely to get much better absent an unwelcome economic downturn.

That’s where technology and innovation entered the focus group discussions as well as the WHA workforce report. In Marshfield and Reedsburg, it wasn’t surprising to hear how telemedicine was delivering important services to patients in rural areas while holding down transportation and labor costs associated with travel time. It was more revealing to hear how telemedicine is helping in urban neighborhoods, particularly in terms of behavioral health, prevention and basic access.

A rising concern: Use of electronic health records has helped patients learn more about their own care, but physicians and other practitioners report they sometimes feel tethered to the computer screen … to the point of sacrificing face-to-face time with patients. The WHA report recommended “more effective and efficient use of technologies” while pinpointing areas where “burdensome regulations and documentation requirements … drain the health care workforce and create barriers to recruitment and retention.”

Statistically, Wisconsin is a state that can boast of high-quality health care. Tech-based companies can build on that reputation through innovation that ranges from diagnostics to therapeutics to better EHRs to cost-containing systems. As workforce pressures increase for Wisconsin health care, making better use of homegrown solutions should help.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and a co-founder of the Wisconsin Healthcare Business Forum. He can be reached at