Usually high growth in the health-care sector spending is bad. Sometimes, it’s good. In the case of the jobs numbers that came out today, it’s a bit of both.
The good: While 2011 has been a year of dismal job numbers, health care has stood out as a top sector when it comes to adding jobs. In this morning’s job numbers, the health industry accounted for 31,000 of the 117,000 jobs added in July. Looking further back, health care accounts for 299,000 new jobs since July 2010. Without all these new health-care positions, a dismal jobs report would be even worse.
The health-care sector is expected stay out in front when it comes to job growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the industry will generate 3.2 million new jobs by 2018 — that’s a 22 percent gain for the industry, double the projected increase for all industries combined. Half of the 20 fastest-growing occupations are health-care related. Demand is going up so quickly that we can’t keep up: Both the nursing and physician industries are challenged by shortages. We’ll be short about 91,500 doctors by 2020, according to the American Academy of Medical Colleges projections.
Why this growth? For starters, the population is aging. As the baby boomers get onto Medicare, and their medical needs become more complex, they require a larger medical support system.
Chronic, costly diseases have also become increasingly prevalent. Conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease simply require more treatments and trips to doctors.
Unfortunately, a lot of the factors creating jobs in the health industry are also part of what makes it so difficult for the United States to get its health spending under control. We spend a lot more on health care than most other developed countries, and our expenses are growing at a rapid clip.
Take, for example, the administrative costs of delivering health care. A Health Affairs study out this week found that the average physician spent $82,975 a year interacting with insurers, about four times as much as their Canadian counterparts. Previous reports have estimated our health sector’s administrative costs to come in around $294.3 billion.
Health experts across the country are exploring ways to streamline health delivery and cut down on extraneous costs. Electronic medical records are widely seen as a path forward; the Affordable Care Act places a hard cap on how much insurers can spend on administrative costs.
Complicated administrative and billing practices do, however, require many billing specialists — so many that the government is expecting demand for them to jump by more than 19 percent in the next decade. That’s a whole segment of the health industry specifically devoted to sorting out our bills and figuring what claims go where.
Does all this growth in our health sector make us healthier? Not necessarily. A recent study by the Commonwealth Fund, which compared health care in the United States with six other countries, found us ranking average on a few indicators and coming in last on a handful of others.
Health care will probably continue to buoy the jobs reports in months to come. But what they say about our ability to keep health costs down looks less optimistic.