Daily Briefing Blog

Health care still in 'slowth' mode

Dan Diamond, Managing Editor

Friday's jobs report had heartening news for the health care industry—and hospitals and home health in particular—but the latest economic estimates suggest that the sector's slowing growth continues.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, health care added 19,400 jobs in March. And all of them—and then some—came at outpatient care employers and hospitals. How does that figure? Because the agency estimates:

  • Ambulatory care employers gained 19,500 jobs; and
  • Hospitals added 4,000 jobs; but
  • Nursing care facilities lost 4,100 jobs.

BLS also revised upward its January and February numbers, concluding that health care employers gained an extra 10,000-plus jobs those months.

New data not a cure-all—but does dull some pain for employers

Taken together, these latest hiring numbers suggest that health care jobs growth may not be slowing quite as rapidly as some have suggested. (Note Charles Roehrig's quote in this good Peter Orszag piece.) For example, December, January, and February had appeared to be the worst three-month hiring stretch that the health care sector had seen in years; it now appears that the period may have just been a mild trough.

I'd been watching the hospital jobs numbers closely, given recent weakness in the BLS estimates and increasing anecdotal reports that providers were feeling pressure. However, the hospital sector doubly benefitted from Friday's numbers:

  • Revision: The sector gained 3,300 jobs in February. That's a change from last month's jobs report, when it appeared that hospitals had suffered three straight down months—the first time that had happened in twenty years.
  • New numbers: The sector's 4,000 jobs in February. That would be the highest single-month jump since last August. 

The recent picture still isn't great for hospitals, though. The sector's hiring has basically been flat for half a year, and hospitals have gained less than 4,000 jobs since March 2013.

Contrast hospital hiring with home health. That sector also reported strong gains in Friday's jobs report, adding an estimated 8,500 jobs and driving about half of the growth on the outpatient care side. Home health employers have gained nearly 57,000 jobs in the past year.

It's worth repeating the usual mantra: These numbers will be revised. The seeming bounce you can discern in hospitals' February and March hiring patterns could be statistical noise, or it could be underreported...especially because a different set of economic data suggested that health spending spiked to a ten-year high last quarter.

But one clear takeaway, as January's numbers shift from "estimate" to "final" and we can sift through one more month of jobs numbers, is that broad health care hiring (and specifically, hospital hiring) continues to slowly grow—and that the sector hasn't grown out of its "slowth" period yet.

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