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No One on Duty: Will Healthcare Be in Jeopardy in 2020?

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Feb. 21, 2001 -- Elissa Passiment has spent the entire morning on the phone with home-care nursing agencies. Her mother is critically ill, and Passiment desperately needs a nurse's aide to provide some very basic personal care.

"We went through all the city agencies," says Passiment, calling WebMD from her office in Bethesda, Md. "They're all having trouble filling that level of position."

A crisis is brewing in America's health care industry -- one that could threaten the care your family receives in a hospital intensive care unit, emergency room, and -- with the trend toward outpatient care -- at home. There simply are not enough nurses, technologists, or other health care professionals to fill all the vacant positions.

"I know it's been hard to recruit good nursing aides and good techs," Mary Foley, MS, RN, president of the American Nurses Association, tells WebMD. "If you can make $10-$15 an hour working in a store, you may not want to take care of someone who is old and sick. It's hard work."

A shortage exists, too, among registered nurses -- those who care for the very sickest patients. For instance, Maryland has a 15% vacancy rate in its hospitals; in Georgia, it's at 13%. Those nurses are also leaving for better-paying, less-stressful careers elsewhere.

"It's a serious issue," Michael Jellinek, MD, a senior vice president at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, tells WebMD. "Across the country, I'm hearing about shortages in nursing, that it's been hard to recruit technicians to do mammography, MRI, CT scans -- the more sophisticated technical positions."

"We're very, very concerned," says Passiment, who heads the American Society of Clinical Laboratory Science, a professional organization for laboratory technologists. "If we cannot address this problem, access to care will definitely be compromised 20 years from now. It's a grim picture, to be honest."

In the field of radiology alone, there's a 28% vacancy rate across the country for skilled technologists, says Gerri Sharp, RTR, director of radiology medical imaging services at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. "The volume of diagnostic imaging tests being ordered is getting higher and higher, and if you're short-staffed it breeds more stress, longer hours."

Such shortages affect an entire hospital, especially the emergency room, Sharp tells WebMD.

"Because of the managed care environment, we are seeing more people coming into the ER as their first source of access," she says. "Of course, that puts more pressure on staff trying to take care of those who are critically ill and really need the ER."

Just last week, a handful of the nation's health care leaders met with members of Congress to address these issues. Their mission: to draw attention to the immediate and long-term repercussions of these labor force shortages. The American Hospital Association -- which represents the nation's nearly 5,000 hospitals and health systems -- has also launched a blue-ribbon commission.

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