Minnesota's hospitals and clinics are on a hiring spree, and they're not just looking for the usual MDs and RNs.

New demand for data analysts and specialists who steer patients through the system has helped make health care the strongest engine driving Minnesota's jobs recovery. That's on top of a growing need for doctors and nurses as baby boomers hit their retirement years.

"We have a shortage of health care providers in the state of Minnesota," said Laura Beeth, system director for talent management at Fairview Health Services. "We have not slowed down in the last two years at all."

When manufacturers and other companies started cutting people during the Great Recession, health care providers kept hiring.

Since February 2008, the high point for Minnesota's job market before the downturn, medical providers have added 39,000 jobs, according to the latest state data. By comparison, the state lost 39,000 manufacturing jobs over the same period.

Jobs in health care -- not including work at health insurance companies -- have gone from 9.7 percent of all Minnesota jobs in 1990 to 15.5 percent today. If the current trajectory holds, one in five Minnesotans will work in the field by 2032.

"We've got a population that's aging, that consumes more health care," said David Heupel, an analyst for Thrivent Financial. "In general that's been a tailwind that we'll continue to see for quite some time."

Health providers are hiring new kinds of workers, such as data analysts and care coordinators, both to comply with the federal health care overhaul and to better understand their customers.

But demand in traditional medical professions is also strong. Fairview alone has about 150 openings just for doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, Beeth said. Including nurses, physical therapists, lab technologists and billing clerks, the number is around 640.

Shifting job market

Hospital networks say that as they try to move from a business model focused on a high volume of medical procedures to one that's rewarded for keeping patients healthy, they need people who can analyze data, talk to patients and guide them through their medical care.

Kristen Mion, a nurse who moved to Minneapolis in August, was hired in October as a nurse care coordinator for cancer patients. She sat with a dozen other new hires recently in a training room on the north end of the Abbott-Northwestern campus, walking through the details of medical records software with a dozen experienced nurse care coordinators. Minneapolis-based Allina Health aims to offer a coordinator to every cancer patient.

Mion, 30, will help patients at United Hospital in St. Paul by answering questions, sitting in on consultations and communicating with the team of doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, nurses, medical assistants and social workers responsible for the patient. She has nine years of experience as a nurse and a fresh master's degree, and when she moved here this year from Denver she applied for a few different jobs.

"This was the job that I was most interested in," she said. "You just have more opportunities to connect with the patient."

Penny Wheeler, chief clinical officer for Allina Health, said this approach to health care, forming a team around a patient and giving them someone to make sure nothing is lost in the shuffle, means a few positions are in high demand. Primary care doctors, for one. And pharmacists, nurses, medical assistants and social workers.

"If we don't change the care model, then we just have to keep adding to our hospitals," Wheeler said. "We're not trying to grow the hospital business."

The system has now hired 26 care coordinators, and the ones who help patients navigate simpler treatment like primary care don't need to be medical professionals.

Wheeler said those new coordinators are often bright, articulate, computer-savvy college graduates. They start out making between $30,000 and $40,000 per year.

Math skills in demand

This is all something of a gamble for Allina and other health care organizations. They're banking on hopes that Medicare, Medicaid and health insurance companies will reward providers for keeping down medical costs by emphasizing prevention, analysis and planning. The new jobs don't pay for themselves by direct reimbursement the way a colonoscopy or an MRI might.

Data analysts are another example. Over the past year, Allina has added 45 full-time employees who manipulate data from electronic medical records -- blood pressure, lab tests, socioeconomic status and medication use -- to figure out which patients need the most attention.

"They're able to tell us who, with a pretty much 86 percent chance, will be readmitted to a hospital," Wheeler said. "It's helping us predict and focus resources on the people who need it most."

That sort of analysis will help Allina put the right people to work on the right tasks, Wheeler said. Nurses who are grabbing linens from a closet or spending their time helping a patient make appointments are not using their clinical expertise to the fullest.

"We have to be good stewards of both the financial resources, but also of people's talent and their time," she said.

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz