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A supervisory pharmacist position at Riverside County Regional Medical Center has been vacant more than three years.

The hospital posted the job on its Web site and advertised the vacancy to pharmacists statewide through the Board of Pharmacy at the state Department of Consumer Affairs. Zee Currie, the hospital’s pharmacy director, manned a recruitment booth at the American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists meeting in Las Vegas Dec. 2-6. It was a failed stab at recruiting outside the state.

"We had no interested applicants … no resumes or inquiries. It was very disappointing," Currie said.

The hospital is also looking for a clinical pharmacist, an opening it created and posted several months ago. "For a clinical pharmacist in the inland valley, it takes about a year to fill," Currie said.

Known collectively as allied health professionals, pharmacists, radiology technicians, physician assistants, respiratory therapists, speech pathologists, nutritionists, occupational therapists and other caregivers are perpetually in demand. "We’re severely impacted at this time. It’s very competitive to keep pharmacists, clinical lab scientists and radiology technicians," said Ralph Millare, assistant administrator at Riverside County Regional Medical Center.

A chronic shortage of nurses has garnered widespread coverage. However, scant attention has been paid to the lack of allied health professionals on whose work doctors and nurses rely, Riverside Regional’s Chief Nursing Officer Katherine Eaves said. 

Pharmacy Technician Vincent Limbo fills a prescription at Riverside County Regional Medical Center in Moreno Valley.

"Nursing, because of the sheer numbers needed, has gotten a lot of press" as many nurses edge toward retirement with too few younger nurses to replace them. "It’s true of other professions too," she said.

"Everyone fights for respiratory therapists. The same is true in radiology," she said.

Because departments for occupational therapy, radiology, respiratory therapy and other allied health sectors tend to be small, the impact of vacant positions "is very acute," Currie said. A 20% vacancy rate at a hospital with 10 or 20 pharmacist positions can jeopardize patient care, she said. Projected annual vacancies in the Inland Empire for 15 allied health professions total 1,156, according to research compiled by Wolde-Ad Isaac, dean of health sciences at Riverside Community College’s Moreno Valley campus. Statewide vacancies in those professions total 13,330. The list includes programs taught at community colleges, including pharmacy technician, radiological technologist, respiratory therapist, physician assistant, paramedic programs and certified nurse aide.

"The needs are so obvious and so huge. If something is not done and done quickly, we will push ourselves into a crisis," Isaac said.

Riverside County Regional Medical Center also needs two dieticians, two speech pathologists, three respiratory care practitioners and radiology and laboratory personnel, Millare said. The facility recruits respiratory therapists by serving as a clinical site for students at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa.

Riverside Community Hospital currently has 16 openings in radiology, five openings for clinical lab scientists, two vacant staff pharmacist positions, one intern pharmacist spot, two physical therapy positions and two speech therapy vacancies.

Davis Leon, radiologic specialist supervisor at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Moreno Valley.

The hospital faces competition from retail pharmacies and stand-alone radiation therapy businesses. "In radiology … people are moving around all the time. They’re shopping for the best job," said Paul Woerz, the hospital’s vice president of human resources.

The hospital’s pay ranges from $28.12 an hour for entry-level radiology technicians to $31.77 an hour for senior technicians. Entry level wages for staff pharmacists are about $41.70 an hour.

Western University of Health Sciences offers degrees in pharmacy, physical therapy and physican assistant arenas. Its physician assistant program accepts 98 students a year and had an applicant pool this year of 900. "A lot of graduates go into the Inland Empire because there’s a lot of job prospects in San Bernardino County," said Roy Guizado, chair of the department of physician assistant education.

Starting salary for physician assistants in primary care averages $72,000. Medical specialties pay higher wages, Guizado said.

Manpower shortages stem from a rapidly increasing state and regional population that demands health care services. Additionally, the numbers of health care-consuming seniors is rapidly rising. "It is that category of the population that is occupying the highly skilled labor," Isaac said.

"It’s a supply-and-demand issue. The schools are not cranking out a sufficient number of candidates. Schools are limited and the space is limited. It takes more square footage to produce a nurse or a pharmacy tech than to produce an engineer," because of the need for lab space and equipment, Woerz said.

"The answer is, employers need to open their arms and help support schools to create capacity," by serving as clinical sites, providing professionals as educators and providing financial support, said Riverside Community’s Woerz.

Isaac wants to build a school of allied health sciences near Riverside County Regional Medical Center, gather scattered programs under one umbrella and grow the program.

In May, Isaac convened the Allied Health Sciences Advisory Board comprised of chief executive officers and other representatives of nine local hospitals and health groups.

The group includes Rowena Lagrosa and Fred Workman, superintendents of Moreno Valley and Val Verde school districts, respectively; Kiki Nocella, vice provost for health affairs at the University of California, Riverside; Loma Linda University’s Dean of Allied Health Craig Jackson, Riverside; County Workforce Development Board Chairman Jamil Dada; Ricki McManuis, senior vice president of Altura Credit Union; Cindy Roth, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce; Oscar Valdepena, president of the Moreno Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The council’s purpose is to develop policy guidelines for the allied health center, identify technology skills needed by employers and come up with curriculum to meet such needs.

The group is to help with fund raising to expand the allied health training programs and advocate at the state level to change the flat-rate funding formula for community college allied health programs.

Members aim to develop clinical training programs, job shadowing, job placements for students and encourage professionals to teach.

Loma Linda University’s School of Allied Health Professions offers 37 degree programs. The university is helping Riverside Community College develop curriculum for clinical lab technicians and respiratory therapists, Isaac said.

"We’re trying to network and see what we can come up with," Millare said. He represents Riverside County Regional on the Allied Health Sciences Advisory Council. Riverside Community Hospital is also on the council.

“There are limits to what they can do, but hopefully we can steer them in a direction to provide education to staff these kinds of jobs,” Woerz said.

“For us, the shortage seems to be local, Currie said. “In Orange County, there seems to be a plethora [of pharmacists] because pharmacists want to live in Orange County.”

Riverside County Regional has advertised positions in the Los Angeles Times and Press-Enterprise.

The state’s pharmacy schools, including those at Loma Linda University and Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, graduate an average of 100 students, not enough to meet the needs of California residents, Currie said. Furthermore, graduating classes for radiology technicians, occupational therapists, speech pathologists and other disciplines are small, she said.

Projected annual vacancies in the Inland Empire for 15 allied health professions total 1,156.

Medical assistant

269

Certified nurse aide

226

Pharmacy technician

80

Respiratory therapist

60

Radiation therapy

assistant

70

Paramedic

71

Emergency medical

technician

71

Medical lab technician

30

Clinical lab assistant

30

Phlebotomist

30

Radiological technologist

66

Physical therapy assistant

34

Physician assistant

55

Diagnostic medical

sonography

12

Biotechnology technician

52

Source: Riverside Community College