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December saw the most new healthcare hires in decades


December brought the U.S. healthcare industry’s largest monthly spike in the number of new hires since at least February 1990.

Healthcare added 50,200 jobs last month, the largest numeric increase in new hires in Modern Healthcare’s monthly jobs data, which stretches back to February 1990. Hiring in the industry jumped 56% from November, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ December jobs report released Friday. The last time healthcare hiring surpassed 40,000 in a single month was in October 2015, the data show.

While more than 50,000 new jobs was “an unexpectedly high number,” healthcare hiring has grown at higher rates in the recent past, said Ani Turner, co-director of sustainable health spending strategies with the consultancy Altarum. The healthcare jobs growth rate hit 2.2% in December, beating out the non-healthcare growth rate of 1.7%.

Turner said she expected healthcare hiring to level off at the end of the year rather than to increase further, especially given the fact that insurance coverage expansion has largely plateaued. It could be just the normal monthly fluctuation in jobs numbers.

“Sometimes the numbers do kind of bounce up and down,” she said.

Healthcare’s share of total jobs rose to an all-time high of 10.79% in December. That’s partly because healthcare continued to grow and add jobs during the Great Recession, even as the rest of the economy lost jobs and took a long time to regain them, Turner said.

“It stays steady and continues to grow while everything else bottoms out,” she said.

Three-quarters of the new healthcare hires were in the ambulatory sector, which added 37,800 jobs in December, 97% more than in November. Within ambulatory, home health comprised the biggest increase, having added 13,300 jobs, up more than 230% from November. Dentists’ offices added 7,200 jobs, compared with just 300 in November. Physicians’ offices made 6,700 new hires, up 22% from November. Outpatient care centers added 3,100 jobs, down 47% from November.

It’s unclear why home health saw such a dramatic spike in December. Sometimes consumers who have met their insurance deductibles seek more care at the end of the year, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into more hiring, and especially not for home health providers, Turner said.

“I would not be at all surprised to see a very low number in home health next month,” she said. “Sometimes it just does fluctuate like that.”

December wasn’t a stellar month for hospitals, however, which added 7,400 jobs last month, down 42% from their November total of 12,700.

Residential mental health facilities added 2,900 jobs last month, an improvement from November, in which they lost 900 jobs. Nursing care facilities experienced a December lull in hiring, having added 700 jobs, down from 900 new hires in November. Community care facilities for the elderly added only 100 jobs.

Total nonfarm employment rose by 312,000 jobs in December, and the unemployment rate rose by 0.2 percentage points to 3.9%.

Healthcare added more jobs than any other industry last month. It beat out professional and business services, which added 43,000 jobs, and food services and drinking places, which added 41,000.

Overall in 2018, healthcare added 346,000 jobs, more than the 284,000 jobs added in the industry in 2017.