For long-term job security, a career in health care is hard to beat in California.
Employment demand for technical and college-educated health workers in the state is expected to grow by 26 percent over the next seven years, compared with an overall job growth of 16 percent, according to a study released Monday.
The report is a call for action to make policy changes to increase the number of health care professionals, said Edward O'Neil, professor at the Center for Health Professions at UCSF.
"Some of these shortfalls are so significant in the very near future that they're likely to endanger some dimension of every Californian's health," said O'Neil, who also is a founder of Health Workforce Solutions, a San Francisco consulting company that conducted the study.
A dramatic growth in the number California residents, combined with an aging population and one that is increasingly plagued by chronic diseases, means more jobs are needed in health fields such as nursing, pharmacy, medical transcription and physical therapy.
Even as a critical shortage is projected in many of these jobs nationwide, California lags behind the country in the number of health professionals in proportion to the state's population and its ability to train enough people in these fields to meet demand by 2020, according to the study.
"We're the largest state in the country, we're continuing to grow really fast and our population is so diverse," said Rebecca Hargreaves, an author of the report and senior consultant with Health Workforce Solutions. "This is something we can design strategies to overcome ... but there are simply not enough programs and not enough slots in those programs."
The report analyzed 15 of the more than 200 health professions that require at least a certificate or two-year associate degree, along with additional requirements such as state licensing. Most professions range in annual salary from about $30,000 to more than $100,000.
California produced fewer graduates than job openings in at least three-quarters of the analyzed occupations, which included licensed clinical social workers, medical radiographers and cardiovascular technicians.
According to the report, the greatest need for current demand was for clinical laboratory scientists, followed by physical therapy assistants, dental hygienists and pharmacy technicians.
Retirement of many professionals is expected to exacerbate existing shortfalls.
Projections indicate that dental hygienists will have the largest employment growth from 2004 to 2014, the study found. Other health careers expected to grow by percentages well surpassing overall job growth include physical therapists and assistants, diagnostic medical sonographers, registered nurses and emergency medical technicians.
Occupations experiencing shortages will need an average of 47 percent more graduates to meet demand.
"The biggest factor limiting the number of health care professionals is the lack of capacity in community colleges and universities," said Abdi Soltani, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, an Oakland coalition of business, education and labor leaders that commissioned the study.
The frustration over training capacity was echoed by directors of health professional schools at community colleges and universities.
"When people ask me what will it take to increase any of your health care programs ... I always start with faculty," said Linda Squires Grohe, dean of City College of San Francisco's School of Health and Physical Education. She said it's tough to attract nursing professors when nurses fresh out of school make at least $20,000 a year more than faculty members.
City College has 539 qualified applicants for 128 spaces in its 2008 registered nursing program. At Samuel Merritt College's Oakland campus, 341 people applied for 48 spots in the school's accelerated nursing program last spring.
"We have the lowest ratio of registered nurses to population in the entire 50 states," said Audrey Berman, dean of nursing at Samuel Merritt College, which also has campuses in San Francisco, San Mateo and Sacramento. "As the population grew, we didn't either expand our existing programs or create new ones. People just weren't paying attention."
The report, "Closing the Health Workforce Gap in California: The Health Education Imperative," was funded by Kaiser Permanente and the California Wellness Foundation, a health care foundation based in Woodland Hills (Los Angeles County). To read the full report, go to links.sfgate.com/ZBME.