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Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Nursing students Alicia Hollars, left, and Christin Rethlake practice their skills at the University of Saint Francis.

Health care’s next wave

As hospitals face growing demand, area colleges do part to fill gap

Saint Francis students Alex Lachat, left, and Marcus Neal work with a human patient simulator.

Starting next year, more people will be covered by health insurance, placing increased demands on the health care industry.

At the same time, we have national – and local – shortages of nurses, doctors and other health care professionals.

Parkview Health, which employs about 8,100, has about 160 nursing openings in Allen County, including positions with Parkview Physicians Group offices. And Lutheran Health Network, which employs about 7,000, had about 170 nursing openings.

But Lutheran and Parkview officials say they are preparing for the individual health insurance mandate to go into effect.

Joe Dorko, Lutheran’s CEO, said several factors are contributing to surging demand for health care providers. One is, of course, coverage mandates under the Affordable Care Act.

Another factor is the aging population. As a rule, someone older than 65 needs three times the health care services as someone younger than 65, he said.

But there’s hope. Higher education leaders in the area are stepping up by creating programs that will educate more health care providers, Dorko said.

North Manchester’s Manchester University launched a pharmacy school in Fort Wayne last year. Marian University in Indianapolis will open an osteopathic medicine school in August. Osteopaths typically go into family practice. Trine University in Angola plans to offer a physical therapy program.

That’s in addition to established nursing and other health care-related programs at the University of Saint Francis, Huntington University and IPFW.

“I think folks have been gearing up for some time to produce a workforce so we’ll be ready,” Dorko said.

The largest need, Dorko said, will be for outpatient services.

As of 2010, about 65 percent of health care dollars were spent on outpatient care, compared with 35 percent spent on care delivered in hospitals, Dorko said. With more wellness visits and preventive care being fully covered by insurance, he expects the outpatient percentage will increase.

That shift is good for patients, many of whom will receive treatment before medical conditions worsen, he said.

Jill Ostrem, Parkview Physicians Group’s chief operating officer, agreed that the expansion of health care coverage is a good thing – that creates some challenges.

Parkview is working to recruit and retain the best health care providers it can find while equipping patients to play an active and informed role “in their own personal health journey.”

“As demand for care grows, we want to make sure patients have access to care that helps promote health and wellness like annual wellness visits and preventive screenings,” she wrote in an emailed response to questions.

“The better we can manage these conditions with our patients, the less complex care they need later. This is especially important for patients who have ongoing health needs like diabetes or heart disease,” she wrote.

Many medical conditions are controlled with prescription drugs. As more people get health insurance and seek treatment, demand will increase for pharmacists.

Manchester University opened a pharmacy program in Fort Wayne last year. Officials’ goal is to enroll 70 new students each year.

Dave McFadden, dean of Manchester’s College of Pharmacy, said officials received more than 600 applications for the class that will begin in August – or about 10 for every one admitted.

The inaugural class in the four-year professional degree program was 64 students. Although just two years of undergraduate work are required for admission, almost three-fourths of the first class had already earned bachelor’s degrees, McFadden said.

The dean said most people might be surprised to learn that only about half of pharmacists work behind a retail counter such as at Walgreens or CVS. Many others work in hospitals or clinics, where some are directly involved in patient care, working on teams with doctors and nurses.

The medical field is rife with career opportunities, Ostrem said. Her list includes physicians, nurses, advanced nurse practitioners and physician assistants, pharmacists and other allied health providers including surgical technicians, physical therapists and X-ray technologists.

“We want to encourage young people to consider health careers,” she wrote.

Steve Smith, CEO of Allied Physicians Inc., heartily endorses that idea.

Smith said finding physicians for Fort Wayne Neurological Center is among his biggest challenges.

“We have a hard time taking care of the patients we have now … I don’t have enough doctors,” he said.

The independent practice includes 27 specialists, including neurologists and neurosurgeons, and about 165 support staff.

The doctors are on call around the clock for emergency cases. And serious surgical cases are usually seen the next day. But non-emergency appointments can take six to 10 weeks to schedule, Smith said.

“We’re perpetually recruiting more doctors,” he said. “It’s just a treadmill that’s going to go faster and faster.”