One in four jobs added to Houston’s economy between 2019 and 2036 will be in the health care sector, but labor shortages and advances in technology might bring that number down, according to projections from the Center for Houston’s Future, a local think tank.

a train is parked on the side of a building: A view looking south at some of the Texas Children’s Hospital buildings along Fannin St. in the Texas Medical Center district Thursday, July. 23, 2020 in Houston, TX.

© Michael Wyke / Contributor

A view looking south at some of the Texas Children’s Hospital buildings along Fannin St. in the Texas Medical Center district Thursday, July. 23, 2020 in Houston, TX.

Health care accounts for 12 percent of the region’s jobs. The report projects that the region’s health care sector, which employed about 335,000 in September, could add as many as 412,000 jobs by 2036.

“Health care is the jobs engine of the region’s economy,” said Steven Scarborough, manager for strategic initiatives at the Center for Houston’s Future. “Even when we’ve had recessions, jobs in the health care sector continued to grow. Obviously, this year is a little different because of the pandemic, but even now you’ve seen jobs in health care rebounding since the spring.”

Health care employment has grown faster than other sectors in Houston. Between 2008 and 2018, health care jobs grew an average of 3.5 percent annually compared 1.7 percent a year for non-health care sectors.

COVID-19 will reshape how the health care system works and encourage costs to go up, employers told the center in a survey. Sixty-five percent believed costs would rise by at least 10 percent in the next five years.

The Texas Medical Center, the largest concentration of hospitals, clinics and health care providers in the world, is expected to play a crucial role in job growth. It employs more than 110,000 workers, about one-third of all health care workers in the region. Investing in institutions such as TMC3, the medical center’s research and innovation hub, will help the region develop its brand as a thriving ecosystem for health care and life sciences companies and rival to Boston and San Francisco, according to the Center for Houston’s Future.

But the majority of health care job growth will come outside of the top hospitals. Home health aides, lab technicians and therapists are some of the fastest growing professions in the country, and most will be in the homes of aging baby boomers or working at health care providers in Houston’s sprawling suburbs.

Labor shortages could slow that growth as could advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which could replace some jobs. Physician shortages may pose a particular problem. The United States could be short as many as 121,900 doctors by 2032 as the country’s population increases and ages, requiring more care. Doctor shortages could make it harder to treat medical issues on time.

The Center for Houston’s Future says Houston should invest more in educating future doctors, nurses and other medical professionals if it wants to retain and grow its health care workforce. Additions such as the University of Houston’s College of Medicine, which opened in July, will help retain physicians in Houston, Scarborough said, especially if they’re completing residencies and fellowships at the medical institutions in town.

“Our ability to retain these doctors and health care professionals increases a lot if they’re actually coming to Houston and building a home here,” Scarborough said.

Scarborough said it would also help to attract more venture capital investments and partnerships with the government and academic sectors to build up Houston’s life sciences startup scene. Funding businesses such as medical device manufacturers and drug developers could help the health care sector gain as many as an additional 73,000 jobs by 2036.

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