The need for healthcare professionals is growing but recruitment remains a challenge

Mar 2, 2018

Homer Medical recently finished the expansion of its clinic.
Credit South Peninsula Hospital

It's a good job market for healthcare professionals. The older population is driving the need for more care and hospitals are expanding their services. On the Kenai Peninsula, healthcare-support jobs are predicated to be the fastest growing occupation this year with the amount of jobs increasing by  2.5 percent. But recruiting healthcare workers to rural Alaska continues to be a challenge.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s population, like many places in Alaska, is aging.

“If you look at the 55 and above, you're talking about almost 30 percent [of the population]," said the Executive Director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District Tim Dillon.

Dillon said the amount of people over the age of 55 has been growing by roughly 1 percent annually for the past seven years on the peninsula. Hospitals here are jumping at the chance to cater to the aging population.

"So they have increased, they have added different kinds of services and things,” Dillon said. “And now you don't have to go to Anchorage for certain procedures. You can actually get them done here on the peninsula.”

But it’s not just the aging population that’s driving growth. Derotha Ferraro is the spokesperson for South Peninsula Hospital.

“It's no secret that inpatient—that traditional come into the hospital and spend multiple days and be treated, that type of that model of care—that's really starting to go away and take a back seat to specialty care, outpatient care, wellness disease prevention," Ferraro said. 

South Peninsula Hospital has been growing in size since 2009. It just finished expanding the Homer Medical Center, adding more exam and specialty rooms.

Doctors have also adopted new technology which has led to more jobs. 

“For example, seven years ago, there was no such position as clinical informatics and now we have two full-time nurses in clinical informatics," Ferraro said. "What those individuals do is they make sure that our nursing and clinical staff are best utilizing the electronic health record, maximizing the benefit out of that electronic health record and making sure information is being moved to where it needs to go electronically." 

Now that the expansion is over, the hospital won’t be hiring as many new positions. But Ferraro said the hospital will fall in line with the 2.5 percent expected growth found in Kenai's Economic Development District’s report. She also expects a wave of people in the hospital to retire. However, she said filling jobs is the hospital’s number one challenge.

"I will say that it's an issue for the state of Alaska and it's certainly an issue for a small community at the end of a road," Ferraro said. 

The peninsula has to make sure people can commit to living here. And even after the person gets an offer, there’s often a backlog in the state office for nursing and physician licenses to be transferred or approved, and it can take months from the time the hospital brings someone on board until the state approves the worker’s license.

That backlog doesn’t exactly help small hospitals who are competing in a competitive labor market with larger cities. To stay competitive, the hospital is rethinking how to make jobs more appealing to the younger generation.

"They're more motivated by flexible work schedules or child care or things that are less traditional to an employer but highly beneficial to the employee," Ferraro said.  "And so we're really having to look at those types of changes of what is our benefit package and what can we sustain." 

But she said one of the most powerful ways to recruit people is to have community members reach out to their friends. If a healthcare professional knows someone already in Homer, they are more likely to come work here. And if all else fails, Ferraro encourages creativity.

"I heard once that Ketchikan had given out hundreds of free bright pink or green t-shirts that had on them what positions were open at the hospital so that when the cruise ships came in everybody wore the T-shirts so that everybody could see 'hey, we're recruiting here' and it sounds crazy but you know every little bit helps," she said. "That's for sure." 

But for now, South Peninsula will continue with the traditional hiring process.