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Is human capital healthcare’s biggest asset?

National healthcare spending increased 5.8 percent in 2015, reaching a total of 3.2 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Photo by iStock.
National healthcare spending increased 5.8 percent in 2015, reaching a total of 3.2 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Photo by iStock.

National health­care spending increased 5.8 per­cent in 2015, reaching a total of 3.2 tril­lion, according to the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices. If you’re doing the math, that’s an average of $9,990 per person. And while the exact num­bers haven’t been released yet, the nation’s 2016 health­care tab is expected to hit $3.35 tril­lion, sur­passing $10,000 for every man, woman, and child for the first time in history.

Health­care costs are too high,” says Tim­othy Hoff, pro­fessor of man­age­ment, health­care sys­tems, and health policy at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. “Employers want to pay less and indi­vid­uals want to pay less, but the only way that will ever happen is if we can figure out a way to deliver health­care to patients at a lower cost.”

Some cost-​​reduction strate­gies are focused squarely on the evo­lu­tion of the health­care work­force. Hoff—who recently co-​​edited The Health­care Pro­fes­sional Work­force: Under­standing Human Cap­ital in a Changing Industry—says that doc­tors, nurses, phar­ma­cists and other health­care workers have begun col­lab­o­rating to pro­vide better, more afford­able care to patients nation­wide. For example, a pri­mary care physi­cian might work with the same group of nurses and med­ical assis­tants on a day-​​to-​​day basis, com­mu­ni­cating reg­u­larly and sharing the same caseload.

Health policy expert Tim­othy Hoff recently co-​​edited The Health­care Pro­fes­sional Work­force: Under­standing Human Cap­ital in a Changing Industry, a sem­inal volume in his field. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Health policy expert Tim­othy Hoff recently co-​​edited The Health­care Pro­fes­sional Work­force: Under­standing Human Cap­ital in a Changing Industry, a sem­inal volume in his field. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

This team-​​based approach is still a work in progress,” says Hoff, “but the goal is to increase effi­ciency and deliver higher quality care within a com­pressed time frame.”

In this new system of care, physi­cian assis­tants, nurse prac­ti­tioners, and other health­care pro­fes­sionals have been asked to take on more respon­si­bility than ever before. Med­ical assis­tants, for example, now per­form some of the duties of nurses, while nurses, in turn, now per­form some of the duties of doctors.

There simply aren’t enough physi­cians to pro­vide all the care,” Hoff explains. “To make up for that, other health­care pro­fes­sionals are being exposed to better training in school and then being given a chance to do more com­plex work.”

This health­care trend has direct impli­ca­tions for North­eastern stu­dents who are looking to break into the industry, espe­cially those in the university’s nursing, phar­macy, physi­cian assis­tant, and phys­ical therapy pro­grams. According to Hoff, these healthcare-​​professionals-​​in-​​training will soon have more com­plex jobs, more career options, and more oppor­tu­ni­ties to make an impact on the nation’s overall health and wellness.

Health­care costs are too high. Employers want to pay less and indi­vid­uals want to pay less, but the only way that will ever happen is if we can figure out a way to deliver health­care to patients at a lower cost.

Timothy Hoff pro­fessor of man­age­ment, health­care sys­tems, and health policy

If you want to get into health­care as a care provider,” he advises, “then you need to talk to people in your field and use your co-​​ops to get insight into how changes in the industry will impact your par­tic­ular profession.”

A snap­shot of the health­care industry looks like this: The nation’s pop­u­la­tion is get­ting older and living longer than ever before, due in part to improve­ments in med­i­cine, vac­cines, and antibi­otics. According to a report pub­lished by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion in 2016, the num­bers of Amer­i­cans aged 100 and over increased by more than 43 per­cent from 2000 to 2014, rising from 50,281 to 72,197. Despite the deep uncer­tainty sur­rounding the future of health­care reform, cut­ting costs will con­tinue to be a top pri­ority, par­tic­u­larly as it relates to an aging and increas­ingly sicker patient population.

For the moment, we’ve bought into a market-​​driven model of health­care delivery,” says Hoff, “but there’s plenty of evi­dence to show that it can’t on its own solve the system’s cost and access issues.” And that, he adds, is “where turning out big num­bers of com­pe­tent health­care pro­fes­sionals who can work together will play an impor­tant role.”