Health care expands to meet the need in Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, August 01, 2000

Laraine Derr has witnessed first hand the growth in the health care industry in Alaska.

In 1967 in Fairbanks when her husband was diagnosed with cancer, the city didn't offer many choices in chemotherapy. ``We were constantly running to Seattle,'' she recalled.

They moved to Oregon in 1972 to be closer to treatment, but Derr's husband died the next year.

Earlier this year Fairbanks Memorial Hospital opened a new chemotherapy and radiation treatment center, noted Derr, who is now president of the Juneau-based Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

It's one example of the change in health care in Alaska, which is the largest industry in the state's rapidly growing services sector.

Several hospitals, including Alaska Regional Hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center,Bartlett Regional Hospital and Valley Hospital, have started construction projects to expand or add hospital units.

The total number of licensed health care providers -- from physicians to dentists to acupuncturists, among others -- has generally climbed in the past five years, state data shows.

More doctors are practicing in Alaska now than in previous years. The number of licensed medical doctors in Alaska grew from 1,419 active licenses in fiscal 1995 to 1,810 in fiscal 1999, according to the state medical board.

However, rather than corresponding to demand, the growing number of doctors in Alaska relates more to circumstances outside the state, said Marilyn Kasmar, executive director of the Alaska Primary Care Association. Her organization pushes for more health care services in underserved areas.

``One of the reasons for that is that people are fleeing the managed care system'' in the Lower 48, she said. Doctors moving to Alaska prefer the fee-for-service payment rather than managed care procedures, she said.

Kasmar is encouraged that five of eight recent graduates from the Alaska Family Practice Residency Program are staying in the state to provide needed health care services in rural areas.

Another reason for health-care industry growth and increased services is technology. Health improvements from 1950 to 1990 have extended life expectancy, said Derr.

The life expectancy for Alaska Natives climbed from age 47 in 1950 to 69 a decade ago, and life expectancy for non-Natives rose from age 66 in 1950 to 75 by 1990, she said.

``So one of the reasons we have a shortage in health care is because we're living longer and making more demands on the health care system,'' Derr said.

The health care industry faces worker shortages for some positions, such as registered nurses and pharmacists, she said. Last year Alaska had 3,628 registered nurses, 517 licensed practical nurses and 2,150 nursing aides, orderlies and attendants, according to the state Labor Department.

But the average age for a registered nurse is 51, and as many near retirement age, few nurses are coming up in the ranks to take their place, Derr said.

The state medical board has recorded increases in licensed mobile intensive care paramedics -- from 134 in 1995 to 195 in 1999 -- and certified physician assistants, whose ranks increased from 200 to 244 in the same period.

Alternative medicine, such as naturopathy or acupuncture, is also expanding in Alaska. A national trend incorporates alternative medicine with traditional medicine at one office, Derr said.

Licenses in Alaska reflect the growth. In 1995, the state recorded 15 licensed acupuncturists. That has nearly tripled in five years. The number of naturopaths working in Alaska has also grown.

Home health care is another booming area. More older Alaskans choose some type of nursing in their home rather than moving to a nursing home, Derr said.

``That's why you haven't seen new nursing homes being built,'' she said.

The number of physical and occupational therapists also climbed over the last five years by about 70 new licensees, state records show. Alaska now has 343 licensed physical therapists and 153 licensed occupational therapists.

More dentists are also working here. In 1995, Alaska tallied 447 dentists with active licenses to practice in the state, according to the state Division of Occupational Licensing Dental Board. By 1999 that figure had climbed to 607 active dental licenses.

This article first appeared in the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

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