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April 16, 2014 | last updated April 16, 2014 11:34 am

Report warns of serious health care worker shortage

A report released Tuesday by the Maine Department of Labor concludes that the state could face a serious shortage of health care professionals in dentistry and psychology in the coming decades due to an aging workforce in those sectors.

The 2014 Health Occupations report, completed by the DOL's Center for Workforce Research and Information, states that two-third of practitioners in dentistry and psychology are more than 50 years old and are likely to retire in the next two decades. It also says nearly half of the state's pharmacists, nurse practitioners and licensed practical nurses are more than 50.

"Over the coming decade, nearly one out of five currently working in the health workforce may need to be replaced, and in some occupations — optometry, dietetics and nutrition, psychology, dentistry — approximately one out of three," according to the report's executive summary. "Overall, job opportunities due to replacement needs are expected to exceed those resulting from growth."

The report identifies regional disparities in terms of residents' access to services and health workers, with Cumberland County having 50% more health workers per thousand residents than the state average and Kennebec County 20% more. Rural counties such as Franklin, Oxford and Washington were singled out as having 20% to 50% fewer health workers per population.

"Maine faces a number of challenges on this front," the report's executive summary states. "According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, 41% of the state's population lives in rural areas that have lower incomes, higher rates of poverty and unemployment and lower levels of educational attainment. Recruiting and retaining providers in these regions is often challenging."

The report projects that jobs for healthcare practitioners and support staff are projected to grow a combined 17% from 2010 to 2020, which is higher than for all other major occupational groups and well above the 6% increase expected for all occupations.

The health sector in Maine represents nearly 106,000 jobs and $4.4 billion in annual payroll, making it the largest segment of the state's economy in terms of employment and wages, according to the report.

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