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Options for Older Workers in Healthcare

Options for Older Workers in Healthcare

There are two reasons the odds are against any AARP member suddenly becoming a doctor: time and money. But "physician" is one of the only positions in healthcare where older workers don't find a welcome mat. In nearly every other category, the industry brims with employment opportunities.

Healthcare is in the vortex of a job seeker's perfect storm. Demographically, an aging population has placed increasing demands on our medical system at the same time it is losing workers to retirement and burnout. However, many older workers like the flexible schedules healthcare jobs tend to offer. Career changers can transfer skill sets to new positions, while those who have left healthcare but wish to return can retrain with relative ease.

In 2003, AARP's "Best Employers for Workers Over 50" study examined criteria like recruiting practices, training opportunities, health benefits and alternative work arrangements. Five of the top 10 companies were healthcare firms. The AARP now publishes a list of top healthcare employers for workers older than 50.

Nursing is one of the most vital -- and understaffed -- segments in the industry. According to the May 2003 issue of AARP The Magazine, 30 states report a shortage of nurses; by 2020, that number will increase to 40.

Working to Retain Older Nurses

Across the country, companies are proactively seeking and retaining older workers. To tap the enormous pool of former nurses, Massachusetts General Hospital appointed a nurse emeritus, who helps returnees become familiar with new technology and obtain proper recertification.

To retain older nurses considering retirement, Massachusetts General offers reduced hours. "People have paid their dues; they want to enjoy life, but they also need benefits," says Deborah Washington, director of diversity for patient care services. "We work with human resources to figure out how best to do that. We may find a different unit for them or customize their schedule. It's just a question of providing creative options."

To assist older nurses who can no longer lift and turn patients, Baptist Health South Florida has installed new hydraulic technology. Meanwhile, Massachusetts General asks older nurses who are no longer able to perform the most physical aspects of their jobs to teach. "Today's student nurses need to learn how to interact with families and use good judgment," Washington says. "An experienced nurse is worth her weight in gold. We can't afford to lose one."

Across the country, Scottsdale Healthcare in Arizona instituted a seasonal arrangement. Workers can work six months, yet retain benefits for a full year. Six and even four-hour shifts are available. Scottsdale Healthcare, which also offers an elder care referral service for aging parents or spouses, employs 338 registered nurses over age 50 -- that's 26 percent of the system's RNs.

Other healthcare companies reach out to nurses in different ways. Bon Secours Richmond (Virginia) Health System provides benefits for as few as 16 hours per week, while Freeport Health Network in Illinois offers pet insurance starting on day one.

Many Options for Career Changers

Career changers interested in healthcare, yet unable to spend the time and money necessary for a nursing degree, should consider a shorter, less arduous certification program in areas like radiological imaging or physical therapy assistant.

Some healthcare workers never see the inside of a hospital or office. Transcriptionists (who take medical dictation) and coders (who translate patient records into insurance bills) often work at home. A two-year degree in registered health information technology leads to opportunities in these and other information-type fields.

Career expert Beverly Kaye points out the opportunities available to men and women with diverse backgrounds -- none of which require medical certification. "Someone with a business background can go into accounting, billings or collections," she says. "If you've worked with people, you can go into management, patient services or admissions. If you have any kind of life experience, there's a position in healthcare for you."

Costs for training and certification need not be an issue. According to Kaye, many hospitals are so desperate for qualified workers that they provide scholarships in areas such as pharmacology, coding and radiology.

The healthcare industry prizes older workers for more than their availability and flexibility, Kaye notes. Hospitals, in particular, prize loyalty. "They need people committed to their work, not people who are climbing the job ladder," Kaye says. "And older people in healthcare generally want to make a contribution and help others. Their wisdom pays off."

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