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Report finds Houston is short on health care workers

A report found that Houston has only 3.35 health care workers for every 100 residents. Getty Images

Houston may be home to the world's largest medical center, but a new study indicates the region is also home to one of the lowest rates of health care workers among major U.S. metro areas.

The study, released by credit-building loan platform Self, shows the Houston metro area has 3.35 health care workers for every 100 residents. That places Houston at No. 10 on the study's list of the major metro areas (at least 1 million residents) with the lowest share of health care workers per capita, including doctors, nurses, and therapists.

The only other major metro area in Texas sitting toward the bottom rung of the ladder is Austin, with 3.17 health care workers per 100 residents. That puts Austin at No. 4 for the lowest rate of health care workers among major metro areas.

Houston's ranking in the Self study is juxtaposed with the city's status as a world-famous health care hub. Over 106,000 people work at the more than 60 institutions within the Texas Medical Center, which includes the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas Children's Hospital, and the Baylor College of Medicine.

The 1,345-acre medical complex pumps an estimated $25 billion a year into the regional economy.

Despite Houston's stature as a medical magnet, the metro area is witnessing an escalating shortage of doctors and nurses.

A 2016 report from the Texas Department of State Health Services envisions the supply of registered nurses (RNs) — the largest group of nursing professionals — will climb 38 percent from 2015 to 2030 in the Gulf Coast public health region, compared with a 60.5 percent surge in demand. That equates to a projected shortage of 13,877 RNs in 2030. The Gulf Coast region includes the Houston area.

From 2017 to 2030, the supply of primary care physicians in the Gulf Coast region will increase 19.8 percent while demand will spike 27.5 percent, according to a 2018 report from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Ten years from now, the region will suffer a shortage of 694 primary care physicians, the report predicts.

In a 2019 survey commissioned by the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute, about 90 percent of primary care physicians across the country predicted a shortage in their field within five years. Seventy-eight of specialty physicians anticipated a shortage of specialists.

On the consumer side, the survey found 19 percent of patients reported difficulty scheduling an initial visit with a primary care physician, and 15 percent ran into trouble setting up a new visit with a specialist.

"The best way to tell if we have a doctor shortage is by asking patients whether they can easily get an appointment," Dr. Arthur "Tim" Garson Jr., director of the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute in Houston, said in a 2019 release. "For now, they overwhelmingly say 'yes.'"

By 2030, Texas will experience the third largest shortage of physicians among the states (20,420 jobs), according to a study published in 2020 in the journal Human Resources for Health. Only California and Florida will see worse shortages, the study predicts. The physician shortage in Texas is being driven by a growing population, an aging population and an aging pool of doctors, according to the study.

Noting the country's growing and aging population, a study published in 2019 by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts the U.S. confronts a shortage of up to 121,900 physicians by 2032.

The looming national shortage of RNs is also acute.

The country's RN workforce is projected to grow from 2.9 million in 2016 to 3.4 million in 2026, or 15 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the bureau predicts the need for another 203,700 RNs each year from 2016 through 2026 to fill newly created positions and to replace retiring nurses.

"With patient care growing more complex, ensuring a sufficient RN workforce is not merely a matter of how many nurses are needed, but rather an issue of preparing an adequate number of nurses with the right level of education to meet health care demands," Ann Cary, dean of the Marieb College of Health and Human Services at Florida Gulf Coast University, said in a 2019 release

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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