Course of Action – Colleges Respond to Growing Demand for Healthcare Professionals

Julia Chevan (right) leads Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Angela Abeyta Campbell through an exercise in the simulation lab at Springfield College.
Julia Chevan (right) leads Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Angela Abeyta Campbell through an exercise in the simulation lab at Springfield College

Many students work hard to earn a college degree, then find there are no jobs that match their credentials.

But the demand for people to work in healthcare settings continues to rise, and high-school graduates or individuals seeking a career change are likely to be hired quickly after graduating from a certificate or degree program in any of several fields.

“Each year, we graduate 125 to 150 students from our healthcare programs, and they walk into jobs within months of passing their exams,” said Julia Chevan, dean of Springfield College School of Health Sciences and Rehabilitation Studies. “In the past three years, our placement rate has been 100{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}.”

Christopher Scott told the HCN that students in all 75 of the healthcare programs at Springfield Technical Community College are in great demand, and their placement rate is also high. “The lowest figure is 90{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}; we have close to a 99{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} placement rate for nursing, and 100{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} for medical stenography,” said the dean of the college’s School of Health and Patient Simulation.

These numbers bear out what is happening on the job front both regionally and nationally, and what is expected in the years to come.

Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be 2.3 million new jobs in healthcare occupations by 2024. Growth in the field is much faster than the average for all other occupations, and the types of jobs available are almost unlimited.

Several things account for the demand: more people have insurance, and due to advances in medicine, adults are living longer.

“Baby Boomers are getting older, people are having fewer children, and there are not enough young people to care for the aging population,” said Holly Martin-Peele, interim dean of Health Sciences at Holyoke Community College (HCC), adding that there will always be people who get sick and need healthcare.

Elizabeth Hayward-Jansen agreed. “Many students come here with tunnel vision: they tell us they want to become a nurse because it’s a job they know about. There is certainly a demand for nurses, but we try to educate them about other options: there are literally more than 200 allied health careers,” said the professor in HCC’s Foundations of Health program.

Officials from area colleges are doing all they can to prepare students for fulfilling careers in these fields, which includes working with community partners that include Baystate Health and Mercy Medical Center, which is part of the Sisters of Providence Health System.

They have created new degree and certificate programs in response to demand, and some offer options such as hybrid schooling, which is done mostly online and only requires students to be in the classroom for a limited number of sessions.

Officials at STCC report that one of the fastest-growing fields is medical assisting. “There is a tremendous demand, and Baystate calls us all the time looking for graduates,” said Karolyn Ryan, chair of the Medical Assistant Department at STCC.

The school offers a two-year degree program as well as a Pathways certificate program that can be completed in one year. Entry-level pay is $14 per hour or about $30,000 annually, and most graduates are hired as soon as they complete their studies.

“These programs also prepare them to go into other fields,” Ryan said, explaining that graduates with an associate degree often end up as office or clinic practice managers or in leadership roles because there are two prongs to the program: clinical skills, and administrative skills, such as billing and coding.

Students in both programs take the same classes for the first 10 months. At that point, they become eligible to take the certification exam, and some start working immediately, while others continue their schooling and complete the requirements needed for an associate degree.

“Many people find this career very rewarding because they can work in an administrative role, have the gratification that comes from helping people at tough times in their lives, or use it as a stepping stone to go on to other programs,” Ryan, said noting that many of their graduates have enrolled in respiratory therapy, nursing, or radiography programs.

The Commonwealth doesn’t require medical assistants to be certified, but due to changing insurance regulations, Ryan said, medical facilities cannot get reimbursed by insurers such as Medicare and Medicaid unless their nursing assistants are certified.

As a result, Baystate Health approached STCC two years ago and asked for help because the exam has to be taken within five years of graduation and many employees had passed that mark. The college responded by starting a program that prepared the working professionals to take the exam. More than 150 students took part, and the final class finished last summer.

Scott said STCC also hopes to start a medical-assistant program with evening classes and will work with its partners to find ways for students in them to fulfill internship requirements that are usually done during the day.

For this issue and its focus on the healthcare workforce, HCN looks at several other college programs in the healthcare field, many of which have been developed, amended, or expanded in response to feedback from community partners.

Expanding Options 

Dental hygiene is a popular associate-degree course at STCC, and Scott said it attracts a large number of applicants.

“We operate a clinic for the community and deliver dental care at a reduced cost; we’re trying to increase its size so we can accept more students,” he said, noting that students work in highly supervised settings.

The median wage for licensed dental hygienists is $70,000, although the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports salaries range from $60,000 to $98,000.

Radiology is another fast-growing field, and due to the demand for specialization, STCC will soon kick off two new, one-year certificate programs in MRI and CAT scans. Both will involve hybrid learning and will be open to radiologic technicians who have completed an associate-degree program.

“It will give them the opportunity to go into a specific area where they can work with the latest technology available,” Scott said.

Medical stenography is also popular but highly competitive; there are hundreds of applicants for the ten new spots at STCC each year.

In addition, the demand for nurses is so great that the college added 20 openings to its program last year.

“A large number of nurses are retiring, and as graduates advance into specialty areas, there is a real need to backfill open positions,” Scott said, noting that STCC offers an associate-degree program and has articulation agreements with baccalaureate programs in the area, and its advisory boards spend a lot of time researching what the community needs.

“Our community partners ground us and drive our mission of educating students to provide community healthcare, and we adapt to address local needs,” he continued.

Specialized Study

Springfield College offers three graduate-degree programs that include a three-year doctorate program in physical therapy, a master’s degree in physician assistant studies, and a master’s degree in occupational therapy.

“The college also has a number of other programs in healthcare, including nutrition, athletic training, and clinical exercise physiology, and these three specifically address professions with an identified workforce shortage,” Chevan said.

She added that occupational therapy is attractive to adults who want to change careers due to its many rewards and the diverse settings where they are employed.

“Most people only think of three areas when they envision where occupational therapists work: in schools with children who have developmental issues, in outpatient clinics as a therapist, or at a rehabilitation hospital,” she said, explaining that many people don’t know their training includes behavioral health, which qualifies them to work with patients with psychological disorders. For example, they may be employed at a clinic and help people who have panic attacks or a brain injury, or who suffer from depression. Entry-level hourly pay averages $33.39, and in 2014 the median annual salary was $78,810.

“Their goal is to help the person manage the world independently in a way that has meaning to them,” Chevan said.

The physician assistant master of science degree is another popular option. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that such professionals are needed in a wide variety of settings, and the career is ranked as one of the fastest-growing areas in healthcare, with a median hourly wage of $47.20 and an average annual salary of $98,120.

“But there are no shortcuts to this degree, and admission is very competitive,” Chevan said, noting that it’s a 27-month, full-time program with seven semesters; students must maintain a 3.0 cumulative grade point average with at least a ‘B’ grades, and must have been employed in healthcare before they can apply for the program.

The college’s doctorate in physical therapy is a clinical degree, which Chevan noted is different than a Ph.D. or doctor of philosophy degree. She told HCN that, although physical-therapy assistants can begin working in the field with an associate degree, only licensed physical therapists with a doctorate can manage a patient’s plan of care.

Students who choose to pursue their doctorate degree can enter an accelerated, three-year undergraduate program, or take the more traditional route that requires three additional years of schooling after earning a bachelor’s degree. Starting salaries for physical therapists with their doctoral degrees begin at about $86,000.

But participants in all of the healthcare programs at Springfield College work together in team settings to ensure they understand their role as part of an interprofessional team of providers and prepare them to collaborate with peers after they enter the workforce.

Chevan said Springfield College works hard to makes changes to programs that reflect what the nation, community, and local healthcare providers need.

For example, after the Institute of Medicine issued a report titled “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System,” outlining strategies to prevent accidents from occurring as a result of poor communication between people in the healthcare field, the college made adjustments to its curriculum that put more emphasis on team building, safety, and health simulation.

Unique Program

Holyoke Community College started a Foundations of Health (FOH) program in 2010 that introduces students to a wide variety of careers and includes two tracks; one leads to a certificate or an associate degree, while the other prepares students to transfer to a four-year college or university.

Laura Christoph, acting department chair for the program, says it was developed to meet the needs of local healthcare employers and help the 800 to 1,000 students at HCC who elect to enter the healthcare field each year.

“It’s especially important since most of them start out thinking they want to become nurses, and the college only admits a limited number of applicants each year,” she told HCN.

However, students can begin this pathway by becoming certified as a nursing assistant, which requires completing a 15-week semester, then passing the state exam. Entry-level pay is about $12 per hour, which increases to $15 to $18 with experience, and the demand for people with this training continues is on the rise.

“We recently received a call from a local healthcare organization that wants to start an affiliation with us because they are having a problem attracting and retaining CNAs,” said Hayward-Jansen, explaining that they often get some experience in the workforce, then leave their jobs to continue their education.

However, there are many other career paths to choose from, and one of the first courses all FOH students take is titled “Introduction to Health Careers,” which introduces them to a variety of career choices. Other courses help students determine whether they want to work directly with patients or enter an administrative field, such as the college’s one-year course in medical coding and billing.

“Insurance-company regulations have become so complex that it’s vital for every physician’s office to have a well-trained billing practitioner,” Martin-Peele said, adding that the certificate is ideal for people who need to continue working, as most classes are held online or in the evenings.

However, Christoph noted that, although hybrid or online courses are becoming increasingly popular, some students prefer to be in a classroom, where they can interact with peers and learn directly from the instructor, so HCC does its best to offer students both options.

The school also responds to feedback from its partners. To that end, in 2014 it developed a direct care and community health certificate program.

Janet Grant, the community health worker certificate coordinator and Department of Labor grant manager, says it can be an especially good career choice for people who are bilingual, as these workers provide services that include helping non-English-speaking clients fill out forms and access healthcare, which can be difficult because of issues that range from transportation to language barriers.

Other job-related activities include client advocacy, health education, and health-system navigation to promote, support, and protect the health of individuals and families.

“Many urgent-care centers are starting to employ community healthcare workers,” said Grant, adding that the certificate program takes only a year to complete, and entry-level pay is $15 to $16 per hour.

It has become a popular offering, and students in the program often become certified, then continue their education because an associate degree in the field allows them to become a supervisor or middle manager, while a bachelor’s degree in an area such as public health opens up a wide range of opportunities.

But every student who enters the FOH program is assigned to an advisor who helps them decide what courses to take to meet their goals, and Hayward-Jansen has helped many, whose choices have included public-health professionals, physical-activity therapists, occupational therapists, registered dieticians, or clinical nutritionists.

“These career paths are expanding,” she said, adding that the need for nutritionists and dieticians is increasing to help people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Changing Landscape

This spring, HCC will launch a new paramedic program in collaboration with STCC, which is one example of how institutions of higher education work closely with each other and their partners to make needed changes to programs or start new ones.

Due to advances in medicine and the way healthcare is delivered, which includes a dramatic increase in walk-in clinics and urgent-care centers, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

It’s good news for people willing to spend valuable time, money, and energy seeking a healthcare certificate or degree because, in today’s world, graduates are almost guaranteed a job that will pay well, be rewarding, and yield untold benefits and opportunities for growth in years to come.

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