Employment outlook bright for growing health care sector

While proponents and opponents of national health care legislation debate the potential merits and pitfalls of the plan, both sides seem to agree on one prediction: employment opportunities will continue to escalate as an aging population visits doctors offices, hospitals and senior care facilities.

Openings for health care positions at the Mesa County Workforce Center are often more plentiful than openings in other industries. The number of applicants often ranks as one of the smaller pools of job seekers. From specialists to nurses’ aids, from radiologists to X-ray technicians, health care offers an oasis of opportunity in a nation awash in double-digit jobless rates.

The need for primary care physicians, otherwise known as family doctors, is already great. Doctors in their 50s and 60s are preparing for retirement while many medical school graduates shy away from a career that entails longer hours and lower pay than they can realize as a specialist.

Efforts to attract primary care doctors to Western Colorado have produced successes in recent years, but local practices anticipate the need for many more over the next decade. St. Mary’s Hospital and Rocky Mountain Health Plans are offering loan forgiveness of up to $250,000 to entice doctors to come to the Grand Valley, said Dr. Roger Shenkel, executive director or Primary Care Partners in Grand Junction.

“There’s concern everywhere,” said Dr. Lars Stangebye, who runs a family practice in Montrose. “It’s not like you get a lot of money.”

Not that primary care doctors earn below-average wages in Western Colorado. But such physicians can enter the work force with college debt of $200,000 or more, prompting the loan forgiveness program offered in Mesa County. The doctor might face making a five-figure salary for a few years, while a specialist can earn twice as much or more and reserve weekends for hiking, skiing or spending time with family.

Primary care doctors also face declining reimbursements for treating Medicaid and Medicare patients.

Yet, the law of supply and demand could lead to higher wages to attract more primary care doctors in coming years. Even now, the profession offers rewards that come in forms besides money.

“It’s an interesting and rewarding career,” said Stangebye, who’s practiced medicine for 18 years and sees himself working well into his 60s. “Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”