We’ve heard a lot about the shortage of health care professionals, particularly in nursing, that’s only expected to increase in the coming years. However, there is another health care shortage on the horizon, one bound to have an even more profound effect on care delivery: a lack of home health professionals.
According to PHI, formerly known as the Paraprofessional Health Institute, there is a need for more than a million paid caregivers, including personal care aides, home health aides, and nursing assistants, in the next ten years. While many of these professionals are employed in hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers, nearly half of the expected openings are in the realm of home health care.
The increased demand is attributed to several factors, including the increased desire for older adults to “age in place,” that is, stay in their own homes as long as possible as they age. Provisions in Medicare rules and the Affordable Care Act also allow patients to recover from surgery or illness or receive care for chronic conditions in the least restrictive environment possible, which is usually the home. However, the more people needing services at home, the more people required to provide those services — and this is presenting a problem.
Why There Aren’t Enough Home Health Care Workers
In many cases, such high demand usually equals an influx of willing workers — the waiting lists at nursing schools across the country are evidence of that. In the case of home health, though, the need for professionals simply isn’t enough to drive individuals to work in the field. Experts attribute this, in large part, to the comparatively low wages that home health workers earn: the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average wage for a home health aide is about $9 per hour.
Labor laws that, until recently, did not allow for overtime or even minimum wage, did not help the earnings problem. The law is expected to change in October 2015, and will make home health workers eligible for protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantee minimum wage and overtime pay, but many home health agencies, which receive the bulk of their reimbursements from Medicaid and Medicare, simply cannot afford to pay the workers more.
However, low pay isn’t the only reason that home health workers tend to leave the field, and new workers aren’t taking their places. In a recent study, workers reported that they want to work for agencies that are well managed, have a good reputation, and create a working environment in which their hard work and talent is recognized and rewarded. They want opportunities for growth, as well, including increased training and education.
Why Technology Is the Solution
Several agencies and advocacy groups have suggested solutions to the home health care crisis, which run the gamut from training family caregivers to become paid caregivers to recruiting retired nurses and social workers to take the jobs on a part-time basis. The recent decision of the District of Columbia Appeals Court to uphold the Department of Labor’s rules regarding wages, despite opposition from the National Association of Home Care and Hospice, is also a step in the right direction.
However, many experts see the real key to solving the home care crisis in technology, or more specifically, technological improvements to workflow that allow workers autonomy and accountability while reducing the redundancy and bottlenecks that plague many agencies. Home health care software that allows for seamless scheduling, documentation, and billing, for instance, can make the administrative side of home health care easier, allowing providers to spend more time doing what they do best — caring for the patients.
Home care providers who can document visits via a secure Web portal don’t have to spend time transcribing their notes and submitting timesheets at the end of a long day. Even providing route planning for the most efficient visit schedule can cut down on unnecessary travel time — and automatically keep track of mileage — ending the paperwork backlog.
In addition to patient management software, though, technological tools such as Telehealth and remote patient monitors that allow the provider to get a more accurate picture of the patient’s health, improve both care and the working environment. They allow home health providers to feel like more of a partner in their patient’s care, while also reducing the length of some home visits, preventing backups and extra-long working hours.
As our population ages, the need for qualified home health providers will only grow. If agencies are going to meet the increased demand, they need to make changes now to attract a talented workforce — and implementing new technology is one big way that they can do that.