The Oregon House on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would establish an apprenticeship program to train surgical technologists, who provide support to surgeons during operations.
The bill comes amid a health care workforce crisis that has hammered hospitals and clinics that struggle to find clinicians, nurses and other workers. House Bill 4106 would allow surgical technologist apprentices to learn on the job and under supervision.
It’s intended to make it easier to enter the profession. Currently, Oregon surgical technologists get training and certification through a community college program, which can create barriers for rural Oregonians or people who cannot afford the tuition.
State lawmakers have tried in the past three years to get similar legislation passed. Now, the pandemic-driven staffing shortages have added urgency to the issue.
“It comes not a moment too late,” said Rep. Sheri Schouten, D-Beaverton and one of the bill’s four chief sponsors, on the House floor. “We have a crisis in our communities, rural and urban, that is delaying care.”
The current system isn’t keeping up with the demand and fails to provide equitable pathways for rural people and communities of color, said Schouten, a former longtime Multnomah County public health nurse.
Surgical technologists do not perform surgeries, even when fully trained.
Their tasks include preparing a surgical room, sterilizing equipment, ensuring equipment is working properly, passing instruments to other staff and applying dressings.
The bill allows apprentices in registered programs to work under supervision in facilities. Schouten said more than 30 medical facilities statewide have expressed an interest in serving as a training center for the program. Apprentices would also be required to take classes, either online or in person.
Lawmakers said the change would not mean lower standards. Apprentices would have to meet the requirements for certification that are set by the National Center for Competency Training, an independent credentialing body for surgical technologists.
Openings in the field are widespread, said Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem and another chief sponsor.
In her region, she said every hospital and ambulatory care center has at least one and as many as 15 openings for surgical technologists.
“That’s a statewide crisis that is delaying needed patient care,” Moore-Green said.
The bill has drawn support from providers, labor groups and health care industry groups, including the Oregon Medical Association, the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, the Oregon Nurses Association and the Services Employees International Union.
The need existed before the pandemic. In a January 2020 industry survey, Oregon hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers reported difficulty filling openings and between one and 20 unfilled positions per provider.
“This option will be particularly impactful in rural Oregon and was identified as the type of innovative workforce solutions the state needs post-pandemic,” wrote Kate Harris, director of rural health and federal policy for the Oregon hospital association, in submitted testimony.
Providers see the program as a way to develop and attract homegrown talent.
One of those is the nonprofit Samaritan Health Services, which has five hospitals in the mid-Willamette Valley and central Oregon coast.
In submitted testimony, the provider said it has 11 surgical technologist positions open and it takes an average of nearly six months to fill an opening.
“This would provide accessible career opportunities in our community and provide a solution in creating a workforce that is desperately needed in providing essential, safe care for our community,” wrote Bill Bouska, Samaritan’s director of government relations, in a letter to lawmakers. “Future surgical technologists would not have to upend their lives to move near a program, and instead could learn where they live.”
The bill now heads to the Senate.
You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.