Health care jobs

Catherine Rampell in a New York Times Economix blog entitled Health Care Aside, Fewer Jobs Than in 2000 makes the case that other than health care the American economy has not added jobs for more than a decade. Pretty amazing and worrisome. Almost certainly unsustainable.

The basic facts: “In 2000, the economy had about 121 million non-health-care payroll jobs. Today, on a seasonally adjusted basis, there are 120 million non-health-care jobs. Meanwhile, the health care industry has added about 3.6 million jobs in that time frame, growing about 33 percent (14.5 million health care jobs today versus 10.9 million in 2000).”

Its no wonder that health care occupations end up on all the “hot jobs” lists. And one of the reasons there is such a big push for education to emphasize math and science. But that is all based on the assumption that health care will continue to be sheltered from globalization and technology. That health care will be delivered largely face to face by professionals serving patients.

In a facsinating article entitled The Robot Will See You Now the Atlantic explores the revolution that may well be around the corner in how health care is delivered. Which if it comes to pass will substantially reduce the need for health care professionals. (And the article claims is likely to sustaintially improve the quality of heath care. Which, of course, is far more important that what jobs are likely to available in the sector in the future.)  They write:

But according to a growing number of observers, the next big thing to hit medical care will be new ways of accumulating, processing, and applying data—revolutionizing medical care the same way Billy Beane and his minions turned baseball into “moneyball.” Many of the people who think this way—entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley, young researchers from prestigious health systems and universities, and salespeople of every possible variety—spoke at the conference in Las Vegas, proselytizing to the tens of thousands of physicians and administrators in attendance. They say a range of innovations, from new software to new devices, will transform the way all of us interact with the health-care system—making it easier for us to stay healthy and, when we do get sick, making it easier for medical professionals to treat us.

…  Specifically, they imagine the application of data as a “disruptive” force, upending health care in the same way it has upended almost every other part of the economy—changing not just how medicine is practiced but who is practicing it. In Silicon Valley and other centers of innovation, investors and engineers talk casually about machines’ taking the place of doctors, serving as diagnosticians and even surgeons—doing the same work, with better results, for a lot less money. The idea, they say, is no more fanciful than the notion of self-driving cars, experimental versions of which are already cruising California streets. “A world mostly without doctors (at least average ones) is not only reasonable, but also more likely than not,” wrote Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, in a 2012 TechCrunch article titled “Do We Need Doctors or Algorithms?” He even put a number on his prediction: someday, he said, computers and robots would replace four out of five physicians in the United States.

Will machines eliminate 80% of doctor jobs? Who knows?  But probably unlikely and certainly not soon. But it also almost certain that smarter and smarter machines will dramatically change the way health care is delivered and with it both the demand for health care workers and the occupational structure of the sector. (The article speculates that along with fewer doctors the sector will need more IT workers as well as nurses and para professionals.)

The article adds to the evidence that predicting job needs into the future is getting harder and harder. And that we need to resist calls to alter our education to prepare people for specific occupations that we believe will be in demand in the future. That kind of narrowing of education is almost certainly not good for either the student’s career or the economy.

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