The Balancing Act of Clinician Supply and Demand

Nurse Leader Insider, December 7, 2017

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Written by Jennifer Thew, RN
This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

Healthcare executives have no doubt heard warnings that a U.S. clinician workforce shortage is looming. But how much stock should leaders put in these often ominous predictions when there is conflicting data about the issue? Is there a crisis or not? The answer is ... it depends.

Clinician supply and demand is complicated and varies by geographic region, community needs and demographics, and clinician skill set. What's true for one profession, state, or organization may not be true for another.

Rather than taking numbers at face value, healthcare executives should critically assess current and future workforce needs at their own organization. What healthcare services does the community need now and in the future? Will the workforce have the right number of clinicians with the right skills to meet those needs and provide quality care in a changing healthcare industry? How will those retiring be replaced?

Forward-thinking healthcare leaders are taking a steady approach to current and future issues of clinician supply and demand and are developing targeted solutions based on their organization's unique context and needs.

Mission is critical

"You see huge differences in the supply of physicians, both primary care and specialists, depending on region of the country, urban versus rural. San Francisco is swimming in doctors, but Bakersfield, California, has a shortage," says healthcare economist Joanne Spetz, PhD, professor at the University of California, San Francisco's Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies and associate director of research at Healthforce Center at UCSF.

    "If you don't know your mission, then the default mission becomes to stay open another day, and I don't know very many mission-hearted, bright medical providers or clinicians that get excited working for an organization whose goal is to stay open another day."

As Spetz points out, the imbalanced distribution of the healthcare workforce often leaves rural organizations with greater challenges in maintaining and growing their clinician supply. But in some cases, these challenges have been conquered with great success.

This is the case at Kearny County Hospital in Lakin, Kansas. Lakin is a small frontier town of over 2,200 people and more than 230 miles from Wichita. The organization serves patients across a 20-county area via its 25-bed county hospital, primary care clinic, home health agency, and retirement village.

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