Health care explodes in the region due to baby boomer need and Clark County growth

Health care in Clark County and Southwest Washington is a force to be reckoned with.

Its time of being an underrepresented industry that watched a large percentage of residents flock to Portland to seek their care is over.

As an industry, health care and social services makes up just more than 12 percent of the county’s work force and annual payroll, said Scott Bailey, a regional economist with the Washington Employment Securities Department.

Last year, health care grew a remarkable 7 percent, and is on track to keep growing at about 5 percent each year. The 7 percent spike is linked with the opening of Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital in August 2005.

But even with the vast growth in health care the region has experienced in the last couple years, economists and health care officials overwhelmingly agree that industry growth has not hit its peak.

"We’re gambling on the fact it will continue," said Joseph Kortum, President and Chief Executive Officer of Southwest Washington Medical Center. "That’s the reason every hospital you see has a crane in front of it. We’re trying to stay in front of the baby boom demand curve."

The ‘drivers’

Three major factors are driving the industry’s sustained growth here.

First, Clark County is growing. Since the 1980s, it has grown faster and more consistently than the Portland metro area, Washington and the United States. Projections call for more of the same, although with slightly slower growth than in recent history.

Second, the population is getting old. Or older, anyway. The oldest baby boomers are in now in their early 60s, the age at which consumption of health care services increases dramatically, Kortum said.

The level of care the older population requires also jumps, because elderly people tend to need more specialized care, such as cardiology and urology.

And third, more and more people are staying in Clark County to be cared for than ever before.

Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital points to its opening for the increase in retention.

Prior to the opening, about 30 percent of county residents traveled across the river for health care. That number has dropped to 20 percent, said Jonathan Avery, Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital administrator.

"As we expand, we’ll see more and more residents staying within Clark County," he said.

Having two top-notch hospitals in the area – three if you count St. John Medical Center in Longview – doesn’t hurt, said Cassie Sauer, vice president of communications for the Washington State Hospital Assoc.

"Less people are traveling to Portland and Seattle for major procedures," she said. "As long as the population keeps growing, so does the demand for those services. People don’t want to travel, and you have three super hospitals, each with plans to grow."

Rapid growth such as that in Clark County is happening in a number of areas around the state, such as Spokane, but Clark County remains one of the fastest, Sauer said.

"Health care is a service industry, which means it’s labor-intensive," Kortum said. "Which then means that as patient volume increases, so does our need for workers. It matches the growth of the population, and really, it appears to be outpacing it because people will be consuming more as they age."

More growth means more jobs, and people want to work where they live, said James Paulson, manager of recruitment and employment for Kaiser Permanente.

"We are filling positions in Southwest Washington much faster than in other areas," he said. "There are a number of people who live in Southwest Washington who are commuting across the river, so when things open up, it’s a double bang – no commute and the tax benefit."

When Legacy Salmon Creek opened, 7,000 people applied for 700 jobs, Avery said.

Kaiser last month opened its sixth medical building in Southwest Washington in the Orchards area.

"We said it’s a good move because the area is going to keep growing and continue to boom," Paulson said.

The real estate

Kaiser will continue to monitor the area and fill out its clinics here, he said, and Kortum said SWMC understands it needs to fan out from Vancouver. The hospital is looking at sites around the county to build outpatient facilities, and recently bought 12 acres on 192nd Avenue near The Home Depot to place an outpatient services building or medical offices.

Legacy Salmon Creek has plans to expand its employee roster as well as enhance a number of services, Avery said. The hospital is awaiting certification of its stroke center, has recently added advanced neurosurgery tools and is expanding its pediatric rehabilitation program to offer several types of therapies, including occupational therapy, to children.

The Vancouver Clinic opened its $20 million clinic in Salmon Creek near the Legacy campus and has plans to replace its office on 87th Avenue to provide for more patients. Avery said the clinic has bolstered its staff over the last year and has plans to make more hires.

"Health care is going to be dazzling to watch, in spite of the problems it faces," Kortum said. "The technology and innovation involved is incredible. And while it’s the glitzy tech stuff that gets the press, there are a number of interesting debates about the challenges of how Americans receive health care."

The ‘shortage’

The words "nursing shortage" have been spreading across news reports for the last several years. It’s very real in many parts of the country, but it hasn’t hit Southwest Washington at full force yet.

"Everybody would love to have more nurses, but we’re better off than most," Kortum said.

Kortum said SWMC is lucky to have low employee turnover and funnels money into holding onto workers rather than recruiting.

"But that doesn’t mean we’re not always recruiting," he added.

Statewide, there are about 6,000 open nursing positions and "nationally, the numbers are scary," Kortum said. "Projections show we could be as many as a million nurses short in a few years."

All health care professions are in short supply, especially specialty care nurses – operating room, emergency room and critical care nurses – radiation therapy technicians and pharmacists. Physical and occupational therapists are also hard to find.

Southwest Washington Medical Center has its own intensive care training program to keep emergency room and operating room nurses in supply.

"Our state has done a decent job at expanding training opportunities for health care workers," Sauer said. "It’s created special funding for colleges that have training programs for high-demand jobs."

The problem may not be a lack of demand in nursing and other health care fields, but a lack of programs, Avery said.

"If people can get into programs here, they usually graduate and stay," Sauer said.

Health Care Employment:

Did you know?

Short- and long-term industry growth projections indicate professional and health services will grow at above average rates compared to other sectors in Clark County.

Wages in Clark County tend to be higher than regional or state averages in occupations where the county has an above-average concentration, such as production, construction and transportation. The exception is health services, which has higher than average employment here but lower than average wages.

Health and social services, as well as public education, administrative and waste management, experienced the greatest increase in jobs since 1999, adding more than 5,000 jobs in Clark County.

Compared to the Vancouver-Portland metro area, Clark County residents are much more likely to be employed as a health technician or in health care support. This may correspond to the higher-than-average percent of residents with some college or an associate’s degree.

In Clark County, health care, construction, manufacturing and food service industries experienced the most vacancies. And with the exception of construction, most vacancies were for replacement jobs, not new positions.

— From the Clark County Industry and Occupational Profile, released in October and prepared by Portland-based Scruggs & Associates LLC. Most employment, wage and demographic data in the report came from federal government sources, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis and the U.S. Census Bureau. The Washington Employment Security Department provided the data on Southwest Washington occupations, occupational projections, age of workers and population projections. For the report, Clark County was compared with four different geographic regions: the three Oregon counties in the Vancouver-Portland metro area (Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington), the overall metro area, Cowlitz County and Washington.

Health Care Employment:

By the numbers

$4.6 billion total payroll for all industries

$557 Million Total payroll for health care and social services

130,000 Total jobs

16,000 Total jobs in health care and social services

3200 Employees at Southwest Washington Medical Center

700 Employees at Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital

244 Projected annual openings for health diagnosing and treating practitioners in 2009

$84.20 Hourly wage for the highest-paid 10 percent of health care workers

$16.84 Median hourly wage for health care workers – the same as the median for all jobs in the county

$8.26 Hourly wage for the lowest-paid 10 percent of health care workers