Grow Our Own: a strategy to increase the healthcare workforce in Montana

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Building the pipeline for tomorrow’s healthcare professionals

Grow Our Own: a strategy to increase the healthcare workforce in Montana

The healthcare workforce in Montana is experiencing shortages and significant maldistribution of professionals throughout the state. As healthcare needs grow at a rapid pace, the workforce required to address that need may not be available, particularly in rural and underserved areas. The Montana Area Health Education Centers (AHECs), along with the Office of Public Instruction, the Office of the Commission of Higher Education, and numerous other collaborative partners, are committed to build the healthcare workforce pipeline. Encouraging young people to excel in math and science, explore healthcare careers, enter Montana health professions education and receive clinical education in rural communities pays off in future physicians, nurses and allied health professionals.

The Area Health Education Center (AHEC) program was established by Congress in 1971 to recruit, train and retain a health professional workforce committed to rural and underserved populations. In Montana, there is a central Program Office (at MSU in Bozeman) and four Regional Centers: Eastern MT AHEC in Billings, Western MT AHEC in Missoula, South Central MT AHEC in Dillon and North Central MT AHEC in Fairfield. Each region develops workforce strategies that are specific to their populations and areas of the state.

The Montana AHEC has made a major commitment to our collaboration with the Office of Public Instruction (OPI). A specific Health Science Specialist from OPI is housed at the Bozeman AHEC Office and works closely with all regional AHECs. A major focus of the AHEC/Office of Public Instruction partnership has been implementation of Health Science programs in high schools throughout the state. The Big Sky Health Science Career Pathway offers a recommended four-year high school course outline with an emphasis on science and mathematics courses. Students will be well-prepared with a solid foundation in the required knowledge and skills that lead to entry level employment and/or further education in medical fields. Currently, 36 teachers have been trained and 30 high schools throughout Montana (out of 176 public high schools) offer health science programs. Student participation has nearly tripled since the first courses were offered: 539 students participated in the 2005-2006 school year, while 1571 students participated in the 2011-12 school year. The Health Science Specialist also works closely with the Office of the Commission of Higher Education to assure that high school course-work articulates with post-secondary requirements at both the two- and four-year program level.

MT AHECs also work with students in K-12 via these programs….

The Great Hospital Adventure: a puppet show for K-3rd grade students about healthcare careers and healthy lifestyles. The puppet show is often presented by local HOSA students. During the 2010-2011 school year, 78 schools participated in the Great Hospital Adventure—reaching a total of 3410 students.

Hands on Health: an interactive multimedia program about healthcare careers and healthy behaviors for young learners. Developed by Western MT AHEC, SpectrUM Discovery Area (at the University of Montana) and funded through Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana, Hands on Health served 6031 students in the 2010-11 school year, including 1645 American Indian students from eight Tribal communities.

In-a-Box Curriculum Series: Covering the body systems of eye, ear, brain, guts, and bones and muscles, these self-contained boxes are available for loan to educators for grades 4-8. Included in the box are lesson plans, station activities, models and other resources designed to engage students in health and science. The Western MT AHEC is developing Nutrition In-A-Box which will address heart anatomy, food label literacy, media and diet, traditional Montana Native American foods, and “You Are the Dietician.” An Oral Health module is also being developed.

REACH Camps: Research and Explore Awesome Careers in Healthcare is a one-day camp which takes place at the local healthcare facility. REACH provides high school students with the opportunity to explore many healthcare fields through a variety of hands-on stations and activities. Professionals from the sponsoring healthcare facility lead the stations, volunteering their time and talent to mentor students and share their expertise. In 2011, the MT AHECs reached out to 2679 students, parents and teachers at REACH Camps. For the first half of 2012, over 1400 participants have been involved in REACH activities.

HOSA—Future Health Professionals: Health Science students are encouraged to participate in HOSA—Future Health Professionals. This organization allows students an opportunity to explore health careers while building relevant clinical leadership and teamwork skills. The State HOSA Advisor is housed at the South Central AHEC. All MT regional AHECs partner with their local HOSA chapters and support students at the state and national conferences.

MedStart Camp: A free AHEC funded program designed to encourage incoming junior and senior high school students to pursue their interest in a variety of healthcare careers. The aim of MedStart is to provide rural, disadvantaged / minority, low income and first generation college students with an opportunity to further explore healthcare careers, learn about college life, and realize the possibility to pursue higher education. Students often think of healthcare as including only “doctors and nurses” -- MedStart tries to break down that stereotype by educating students on the large variety of high skill, high paid, high demand careers available in the healthcare industry. The week-long program, held on a college campus, includes:

  • Hands on healthcare activities such as sheep heart dissection, blood typing, suturing on pig’s feet, casting, and taking blood pressures.

  • Shadowing with health professionals

  • Medical tours and symposia

  • College support sessions on financial aid, admissions and college life

  • Recreation and social activities

After camp each regional AHEC office matches the MedStart student with a healthcare professional from their hometown in the hopes of establishing a mentor/mentee relationship and continuing the job shadowing process. The 2010 camp hosted 30 students, while 76 students participated in 2011. In 2012, each of the four AHEC regions hosted a MedStart camp (held in Billings, Bozeman, Missoula and Great Falls) with a total impact of 114 students.

Additional Resources:

  • Pathways to Health Careers in Montana: Brochure listing post-secondary education opportunities in healthcare careers at Montana colleges and universities. Includes information for certificate as well as associate, bachelor, master and doctoral degree programs. Brochure is widely distributed to high school students throughout the state.

  • Pathways to Oral Health Careers for Montana: similar to the Pathways brochure listed above, this oral health specific brochure lists regional options for oral health occupations.

  • Newsletters: The K-12 Health Science Connection E-newsletter is disseminated monthly to educators through the MT AHECs. Newsletters provide resources and lesson plan ideas for teachers, administrators, counselors and students related to health science education.

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