The Alaska Primary Care Association hopes to boost homegrown health care workforce with new grant

Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Primary Care Association was recently awarded $9.7 million as part of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Good Jobs challenge grant. The funds will be used to increase the number of Alaskans who enter the health care field, with a particular focus on apprenticeships.

Jared Kosin is CEO of the Alaska Hospital & Healthcare Association. He explains what this grant means for Alaska’s health care industry, and how advocates are shifting the approach to addressing long standing workforce shortages.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jared Kosin: The workforce problem, if you will, this has been an issue for health care for years. And now with the pandemic, now that we’re kind of evolving out of it, the problem’s gotten worse. And we know this, we commissioned a study at the association last year, and we’re going to do it again this year. But the bottom line is in our health care workforce in Alaska, there’s a huge hole. Every single year, we have over 6,300 openings that we need to fill across the sector. Over 1,400 of those are for registered nurses alone. 

So we have this massive workforce hole that’s been there, and that is presumably worse. The problem is, both in health care in any industry right now, you put out job postings, but no one’s applying. Where did everyone go? So we’re in a situation where we can no longer rely on people responding to our posts and coming into our facilities to work, so you have to kind of change your thinking. How do we take our existing workforce, certainly support them through burnout and all the challenges they’ve had, but how do we train them up into the positions versus looking out and bringing people in? That’s where this concept of apprenticeships really comes in.

Michael Fanelli: So what would you say are the biggest barriers to convincing Alaskans to become medical professionals? And how would this money maybe seek to alleviate those? 

JK: There’s a lot of barriers. I mean, certainly, the post pandemic world –  if you could call it that, I know we’re still in it, and this is going to be part of our lives for a long time to come – but there’s a lot of toxicity to it. Health care workers saw a lot of things that others would never care to see. And this both became political, and affected people’s direct lives when they were coming home from shifts, so I think one of the challenges or barriers we have is, well, why would I want to go into health care? I just saw what they went through. Both publicly, and we hear the stories privately – why should I choose that profession?

And so we have to do a better job, from a health care standpoint, to engage people at a much younger age and explain what health care is. You know, we don’t need those A+ students and those people who for their whole lives, knew they’re going to be a doctor. We need those people who maybe don’t know what they want to do, and want to go explore a career field. Health care is ripe for that, because once you come in, you can go anywhere with it.

MF: Okay. So aside from this grant, what else does the health care industry in Alaska need to get where it needs to be?

JK: You know, we’re in a much better place than we were a year ago now. A year ago, we were getting ready for the Delta surge. And I would say that was the worst part of the pandemic for us. And that’s my personal opinion. But a year later, what do we really need? I think an understanding that things fluctuate, we are still busy. Thankfully, it’s not [because of] COVID, COVID is impacting [us] when it knocks out staff, but I would probably say behavioral health. 

Behavioral health is something that we all know, over the last couple of years has probably taken a significant hit. People have been through trauma. And now that things have kind of settled down, I think it’s manifesting more. What we experience is a broken continuum, where we’re seeing people in crisis, who need to be paired with counselors, people trained in behavioral health therapy, but there’s none of them out there. So they end up coming to a hospital emergency department, and ultimately wait to get into an inpatient psychiatric bed. That’s bad care. And I would say that is a big priority for us, even though we’re in the hospitals and nursing homes. If a piece of the continuum is extremely deficient, if it’s broken, the rest of us feel it. And so we need to do our part on behavioral health.

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