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This is a special series from the February 2023 issue of Desert Companion, where thought leaders share big ideas on how to improve Nevada's healthcare

John Packham: A health workforce Marshall Plan

John F Packham smiles into the camera
Illustration: Ryan Vellinga
Photo: Brin Reynolds for UNR

Associate Dean for UNR’s Office of Statewide Initiatives

Big Idea: A health workforce Marshall Plan

The pandemic exerted unprecedented stress on healthcare systems across Nevada, leading 55 percent of front-line healthcare workers to report burnout and fatigue in 2021. Inevitably, this has negatively affected healthcare workforce numbers in recent years: According to the most recent data, almost 2 million Nevadans live in a primary care physician (PCP) shortage area, equivalent to more than 57 percent of the state’s population. Similarly, even before COVID, Clark County recorded one PCP for every 1,760 people in 2019; in Pershing County, one for every 6,725.

John Packham, the associate dean for the Office of Statewide Initiatives at UNR, considers this shortage to be among the most pressing problems facing the state’s healthcare system today. “For as long as I've been looking at these issues, which is a little over 20 years, Nevada has been plagued by health workforce shortages,” Packham says.

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His solution is a health workforce Marshall Plan, reminiscent of the one implemented to rebuild Europe after World War II, to keep practitioners in-state. Just as the U.S. provided economic assistance to European nations, which created their own plans for reconstruction, the state of Nevada should invest more money in existing local academic programs, Packham argues. The idea would be to “educate and train our own” nurses and healthcare practitioners instead of drawing them from elsewhere in the country. This, he stresses, will be especially important for local nurses, as Nevada is continuing to face a critical shortage of them. As of 2021, the state needs an extra 5,719 certified nursing assistants and 4,290 registered nurses to meet national population-to-provider averages.

Packham acknowledges that keeping healthcare professionals in Nevada will require both a decrease in cost for medical education and competitive pay increases as graduates enter the workforce as teachers or providers. Yet he is adamant that his Marshall Plan for Nevada’s healthcare workforce is achievable, provided that consistent effort is made.

“(It) will require dollars, it will require changes in public policy,” he says. “But I'm optimistic that if you build those programs, make them affordable for Nevada residents and students, they will stay. And that's what we need.” ✦