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Faculty to study future of health-care workforce

Leaders of two Northeastern University schools are teaming up to study the American health-care professional workforce in partnership with Washington’s prestigious Bipartisan Policy Center.

Carole Kenner, dean of the School of Nursing, and Barry Bluestone, dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, are studying the future demand for health care and the labor supply required to fill it, while cognizant of the need to rein in what Bluestone called the ongoing “explosion in health-care costs.”

In addition, Kenner and Bluestone will investigate the changes that will be needed in the education and training of the health-care professional labor force in order to offer better health outcomes at a more reasonable cost.

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) was founded by former U.S. Sens. Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Robert Dole and George Mitchell to develop and promote solutions that can attract public support from both Democrats and Republicans. Over the course of the next two years, the center’s Health Project will help states develop bipartisan solutions to meet their ongoing budgetary, demographic and health reform challenges.

The BPC invited leaders from select universities to work on health-care professional workforce issues, one of the Health Project’s key areas of focus. The Health Project’s Workforce Initiative, chaired by Dr. Kavita Patel, former director of policy for the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, will tackle some of the most challenging issues about how to structure, educate, retain, license and regulate a health-care workforce able to deliver efficient, patient-centered, high- quality care.

Kenner said she was asked to join the BPC task force based on academic work at her previous institution, the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Kenner has long focused on ways to revamp health-care education to meet the anticipated demands of the U.S. population.

After being contacted by the bipartisan organization, Kenner reached out to Bluestone. “We needed Barry’s expertise from an economic standpoint,” she said. “He has a great background” on key issues, including demographic and geographic differences in employment opportunities and obstacles.

“I was excited to join the team,” he said, citing Northeastern’s “strong interdisciplinary approach” to finding solutions to global challenges.

The task force will review the literature on health-care professional workforce issues, host roundtables in state forums and produce policy briefs and a white paper on the future of the health-care delivery system. The work will be important to the discussion “whether or not President Obama’s health-care reform is repealed,” Kenner noted.

Bluestone is developing, with the staff of Northeastern’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, a model to project the demand for care, “taking into account the aging of the American population, increased racial and ethnic diversity and the cost of care in the various regions of the country.”

The model will begin by assuming no change in the way health care is delivered or in the workforce providing it. Bluestone suspects that under these assumptions, the future cost of health care will be unsustainable — very likely requiring 20 to 25 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

This simulation model will then be used to test what the cost impact would likely be of changing the “what, who and how of health-care delivery, as well as the impact of programs to reduce health-care demand by, for instance, promoting healthier lifestyles.”

The Workforce Initiative will address questions such as whether the field needs additional medical doctors or nurse practitioners, or both; what technological changes are imminent and what skills will be needed; what savings could be achieved from using electronic medical records; and whether the behavior of the U.S. population around issues such as nutrition can be modified to stave off widespread health problems such as diabetes and obesity.

Along with those questions, Kenner said, they will be eyeing health-care education for adaptation, at the secondary and post-secondary level. “Changes in education models have, or potentially have, serious policy angles,” she noted.

With many months of research ahead in cities across the country, the deans intend to bring several Northeastern colleagues into the mix quickly, said Bluestone.

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