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At some point, every one of us gets the flu or twists an ankle. Even those with excellent health schedule regular physicals. It’s not surprising that the healthcare field, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is one of the fastest growing job sectors of the economy.

The CDC reports that 18 million healthcare workers serve in the U.S. Who’s counted in that number? Your family doctor and nurse are obvious; others range from audiologists to dentists, dietitians, Emergency Medical Technicians, home healthcare workers, long-term care administrators, massage therapists, midwives, optometrists, occupational therapists, pharmacists, physical therapists, psychologists, social workers and speech pathologists – a long list.

Angie Reynolds Jackson, a nurse in employee health at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center, takes care of caregivers. She sees a wide range of Carilion employees for everything from TB screenings to work-related injuries. “[I’ve] been doing an informal survey of everyone who comes through my office. The happiest are those working in mother and baby care, hospice or mental health,” she says.

Happy to work with the dying or those struggling with mental illness? That seems counterintuitive until Jackson elaborates. “I have never gone home after a day at work and felt that I wasted valuable time or wondered what my contribution to society was for that day. Nursing is a wonderful field and career. It is a true honor to have been present during people’s most vulnerable or fearful moments and to have cared for them during those times.”

Satisfaction with the job is easier to imagine when that job is serving mothers and babies. Mattie G. Berry, a Carilion Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) says: “Pregnancy, labor, birth and the transition to motherhood can be a sacred time. It’s an honor, privilege and blessing to be a part of that journey.”

Helping those who need treatment during less dramatic moments is also inherently gratifying. Ken Stevie, an operating room nurse at LewisGale Hospital Montgomery echoes Jackson and Berry. “The most satisfying part of the job is when you know you made a difference and improved a life.”

But even jobs with these rewards have less-than-ideal aspects. Healthcare providers across the board noted that demanding, and often extended, hours are physically difficult. This is especially true when they’re on-call 24 hours a day. Jackson, originally trained as an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse, switched to her current position due the physical stress of lengthy shifts. “I needed more predictable, and healthy, working hours.” Stevie notes the irony inherent in an on-call schedule. “The hours that we work can be very unhealthy for us.”

But Berry, Jackson and Steve also all appreciate their job stability. “As most nurses will affirm, we can always find work,” Berry says.
Stevie, a single father raising two kids, notes that the prospect of steady employment combined with the service aspect of nursing grounded his decision to become a nurse. “I was drawn primarily because of the job security, as well as it being a helping profession.”

However, although the paycheck is steady, its size may not cover medical costs for employees in the healthcare field. Jackson says: “I see countless folks with high blood pressure because they can’t afford the medications.” Stevie also speaks to this issue: “The pay scale afforded to nursing professionals isn’t commensurate with the level of responsibility. That’s probably true in many professions that have been primarily female dominant. Recent changes in other areas of compensation, such as health insurance, have degraded the total compensation package.”

Certainly employees everywhere have felt the bite of the recession, and it’s easy to find stories of fixed-income individuals and families having to choose between food and medicine. When Virginia Tech explored the need for a medical college, the study – conducted with the Harvey W. Peters Research Foundation — showed 30 counties in Southside and Southwest Virginia with an extreme health care shortage, and another 70 were medically underserved. The eight U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources Administration (HHRA) facilities within 50 miles of Blacksburg also indicate that the New River Valley region struggles with insufficient health care access. The federally-funded HHRA offices provide health care services to residents without the means or insurance, and as doctors will attest, eight in a region of our size is relatively high.

Why the shortage of access if the healthcare sector is growing so quickly? In the case of physicians, there are more aspiring doctors than residency spots. In both 2013 and 2014, due to a shortage of residencies, nearly 14,000 qualified medical graduates, for a total of 28,000, couldn’t begin training. It’s a complicated issue, but a key component is that Medicare funds the vast majority of residencies, and the number of those positions was frozen when Congress passed the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. The U.S. population has increased by 50 million people since 1997 – the NRV’s share of that is 18,000 – but our system has not provided funding to train a corresponding number of physicians.

The New River Valley’s own Dariush Liske-Doorandish, M.D., addressed this discrepancy by drafting a resolution for the American Medical Association (AMA), “Increasing Healthcare Access for the Underserved.” The AMA adopted a version of it during its November 2013 interim meeting; implementation is in process.
In the New River Valley, healthcare providers lucky enough to have completed their training know they’re fortunate. Jackson concludes: “Each patient has changed my life, and every day I have a constant reminder that I have it good.”

 

By Lesley Howard

 
Explore a career in healthcare in Southwest Virginia at the Virginia Health Workforce Development Authority: http://www.vhwda.org/healthcare-careers/

Radford University has graduated more than 2,000 nurses since opening is program in 1966: http://www.radford.edu/content/wchs/home/nursing.html/

VCOM made the short list of affordable medical schools, as featured in US News & World Report: http://www.vcom.edu/news/2014-05-16-vcom-affordable-med-school.html

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