Shortages of Behavioral Health Workers, Nursing Faculty Critical

Not many incentives for nursing faculty to remain and salaries too low for young nurses.

Oregon’s behavioral health workforce is “critical” to healthcare transformation but the numbers of those licensed last year was inadequate to meet the need for integrating physical and mental health, Oregon’s Healthcare Workforce Committee was told.

“We need more,” said Jo Isgrigg, executive director of the Oregon Healthcare Workforce Institute. “And we’re concerned about the pipeline.”

Isgrigg said 12 percent of licensees intend to leave the profession, move away from Oregon or reduce their hours in the next two years. They include psychologists, psychiatrists, behavioral health nurses, physician’s assistants and nurse practitioners or licensed social workers, counselors and therapists.

Behavioral health is an integral part of primary care to achieve the Triple Aim, said Dr. David Pollack, incoming chair of the workforce committee and professor of public policy at OHSU. “It may be odd hearing a psychiatrist say this but [psychiatric providers in integrated care] is a recovery-oriented method that supports judicious use or non-use of psychotropic meds.”

Recent legislation to expand telemedicine can help ease the worker shortage especially in remote rural areas, said Pollack, but he’s concerned about filling the need over the long term for mental health professionals.

“What do we do to prime the pump to get high school and middle school populations to think of health care professions and behavioral health in particular?” he asked.

On another issue, a survey of Oregon’s 16 community colleges and six universities indicated that the nursing faculty liked jobs but half of them expect to retire in 10 years.

“There’s not a lot of incentives for nurses to stay in faculty positions,” said Jana Bitton, executive director of the Oregon Center for Nursing.

There’s no financial incentive for young nurses to go into teaching with the average salary for faculty nurses with masters- and Ph.D.-level educations at $71,000 compared with an $81,500 average salary for a practicing registered nurse with an associates’ degree.

“Clearly we’re not going to be able to fix the pay issue,” Bitton said because that’s a higher education issue but tax credits and loan forgiveness can help offset education costs.

Graduate-level medical education generally is expected to get a boost when a statewide consortium forms in September, said Robyn Dreibelbis, committee member and assistant professor of family medicine at the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific Northwest. “It’s a concept that has not been done previously.”

Jan can be reached at [email protected]

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