Opinions

OPINION: Alaska’s health care system depends on our ability to “grow our own”

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Alaska has long suffered from health care workforce shortages, and the COVID-19 pandemic led to a workforce crisis. Our health care workers are experiencing high rates of burnout, and staffing shortages increase the workload for the remaining staff, further contributing to the vicious cycle of burnout and high turnover rates. At the same time, our health care workforce is aging, and many are retiring early.

Meanwhile, our nation is experiencing an increased demand for health care with more Americans accessing health care due to the Affordable Care Act and an aging population. And yet we are graduating the same number of nursing and medical students each year as we were 20 years ago.

One of the ways that we can break free from this cycle is to forge strong partnerships between the industry, schools, and students to build our local Alaskan workforce. We need to engage students at a young age, increasing their awareness of health care careers and exposing them to work-based learning opportunities like industry speakers, job shadows, and internships. We also need to find ways to support students interested in health care on their path from high school to post-secondary education and beyond.

One example of using work-based learning to build our future workforce is the recent University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) STEM Day for kindergarten through 12th grade students to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Over 1,500 participants attended activity booths and it was the highest turnout that they have had for this event. Such events inspire our youth to pursue engaging and meaningful careers in health care and beyond.

A similar program is in development to increase the awareness of health care careers among kindergarten through sixth grade students through a partnership between Alaska Hospital & Healthcare Association (AHHA), Junior Achievement, and Alaska’s Area Health Education Center (AHEC) based at UAA. AHHA is also educating health care organizations about the benefits of hiring 14- to 17-year-olds into appropriate entry-level positions. This has the benefit of exposing young Alaskans to health care while also filling immediate workforce gaps.

Beyond K-12, workforce development priorities should include health care apprenticeships and reducing barriers to career pathways such as Certified Nurse Aide training. We also need to address professional licensing delays for nurses and physicians to ensure that new graduates can join the workforce as soon as possible and that we can bring in workers from the Lower 48 to fill the gaps that we are unable to fill with our local talent streams.

UAA is also home to the only medical school in the state, Alaska WWAMI. For the past 50 years, the university’s partnership with the University of Washington School of Medicine has brought affordable, convenient and high-quality medical education to aspiring physicians in our state. Having an in-state medical school reduces the financial and geographic barriers that come with having to attend medical school out-of-state and many Alaska WWAMI students are former UAA undergraduate students. An in-state medical school also gives students the opportunity to study the unique health care needs of our rural and urban communities throughout Alaska.

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During my time as a bedside nurse, I experienced how challenging it is to provide high-quality care amid staffing shortages and how disheartening this can be for well-intentioned health care workers. Every Alaskan deserves to have access to high-quality health care at an affordable price. To achieve this, it is imperative that we invest in building our local workforce starting with supporting our youth and the institutions that educate them.

A lifelong resident of Southcentral Alaska, Nikki Holmes is the director of healthcare workforce for the Alaska Hospital & Healthcare Association. Learn more at https://www.alaskahha.org/.

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