Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 11:49 AM on Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Health care jobs see boom in Alaska



By Tim Bradner
Morris News Service - Alaska

Employment in health services has leaped in Alaska over the last two decades and shows no signs of a slowdown, a panel of state officials told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Nov. 28.

What's driving the increase isn't entirely clear, although the gradual aging of the state's population is one explanation, the panel said.

About $7.5 billion was spent on health care in Alaska in 2010, and employment in the industry reached 31,800, said Pat Carr, with state Department of Health and Social Services. Carr was one of three state officials on the panel.

Dan Robinson, senior economist in the state Division of Research and Analysis, also on the panel, said health care employment grew 58 percent between 1990 and 2000, a period in which overall Alaska employment grew 19 percent, and another 51 percent between 2001 and 2010, years in which overall Alaska employment grew 12 percent.

The research and analysis division is part of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

A steady, steep rise in health care jobs also kept Alaska's job-growth on a positive track in 2008 and 2009 when the rest of the nation slipped into recession and other states lost jobs, Robinson said. Alaska showed a net gain of 2,300 jobs between 2008 and 2009, but within that total health care employment increased by 4,000, he said.

Without the growth of health care, there would have been a loss of total jobs in Alaska of 1,700, Robinson said. Health care and social services, categories that are lumped together in the state labor data, now account for 12 percent of the state's total workforce, or about one in nine jobs.

This total includes all who are employed by health care providers, however, so the many support jobs such as in information technology and even attorneys would be included in this, he said. However, about 40 percent of the total are employed directly in health care in hospitals or in physician services, Robinson said.

The state labor department's forecast is for the growth to continue. Robinson said the 10-year employment forecast, for 2008 through 2018, estimates that health care employment will grow another 27 percent, compared to overall job growth in the state of 11 percent.

Aging of the state's population is one factor driving the rise in health care employment because senior citizens typically need more medical services than younger people. Carr said the state's senior population, those over 65, increased 50 percent between 1996 and 2006, although state labor economists also say that Alaska's population is still younger overall than the populations of most other states.

Another factor that has driven the increase in health care services, many health professionals have said, is the continued development of health care infrastructure and technology in the state. In previous years Alaska was undeveloped in terms of medical services even in the populated communities, the result being that many Alaskans went out of state for medical care.

Now advanced services and medical technology are available in the state's larger communities, and medical facilities such as clinics are being developed in rural communities through the large nonprofit tribal health care consortiums and agencies like the Denali Commission.

Meanwhile, the numbers of health care professionals are increasing in some parts of the state, but declining in others areas.

An Oct. 31 report by the state Division of Public Health, a part of the Department of Health and Social Services, showed that the number of physicians and other specialized medical professionals is increasing, but in some areas, particularly rural, populations remain underserved.

Between 2007 and 2011, the number of physicians licensed in Alaska grew by 7 percent, ahead of the state's 5 percent population growth, but while the Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Interior regions grew in number of physicians, Southeast and Southwest Alaska lost physicians.

There were similar increases in the number of physician assistants and nurse practitioners in most areas of the state except, once again, Southwest Alaska. Registered nurses showed increases in all parts of the state.

Tim Bradner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

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