By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – A report released in February by the University of Nebraska Medical Center shows the state has made some progress in the ongoing effort to improve access to quality health care.
For instance, the number of registered nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists and paramedics working in the state has increased over the past decade.
However, the report notes “substantial” challenges still remain, particularly in rural Nebraska.
- 13 of the state’s 93 counties don’t have a primary care physician, and every county except Douglas and Lancaster has a shortage of at least one type of primary care physician
- 1 in 5 physicians is older than 65 and nearing retirement
- 37 counties don’t have an occupational therapist and only 19 have a licensed audiologist
- the number of dentists per 100,000 residents decreased slightly over the past 10 years
The report, which was funded by the Nebraska Area Health Education Center, recommends a “grow-your-own approach” to address workforce shortages in the health care industry.
“It’s really vital for us to be thinking strategically about not only how we educate students and get them excited about health care, but also keep them in the region,” said Brandon Drozd, program coordinator for the Central Nebraska Area Health Education Center (AHEC) at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
AHEC’s mission is to establish a pipeline of homegrown talent ready to serve rural communities by promoting health care careers and educational opportunities available in Nebraska.
“One of the things that we recognize is students who get their education in a rural setting are more likely to stay and work in a rural area,” Drozd said.
A big part of that effort involves reaching students before they make a college decision, which is the goal of a new Health Careers Club that launched in September.
The club, organized by Drozd, exposes high schoolers to various health care professions and the educational paths they can take to land those positions. Students meet once a month, typically in Kearney, Grand Island or Hastings, with each session focusing on a specific field.
The 2018-19 schedule includes presentations on radiography and physical therapy at the UNMC/UNK Health Science Education Complex in Kearney, nursing, pharmacy, human services and the emergency medical technician/paramedic fields at Central Community College in Kearney and Grand Island and dentistry at Hastings College. South Heartland District Health Department in Hastings also presented on public health careers and a rural hospital tour focusing on primary care is planned at Kearney County Health Services in Minden.
The sessions feature hands-on activities and allow participants to visit various medical and educational facilities while learning from faculty, current college students and professionals.
“It’s a great way for high school students to get on campus and get a feel for that environment,” Drozd said.
The Health Careers Club has 34 members from about 10 different central Nebraska high schools. It’s open to juniors and seniors from smaller, rural schools that don’t offer the career exploration programs available at larger schools.
MEETING THE DEMAND
Peggy Abels, director of health sciences at UNK, also recognizes the importance of reaching this demographic.
“Student interest increases when they have the opportunity to explore health care careers and become more aware of the opportunities,” she said.
At UNK, where the $19 million Health Science Education Complex opened in 2015, enrollment in health sciences programs has increased by roughly 33 percent over the past four years. With about 800 students enrolled during the fall semester, health sciences is the largest academic department on campus.
“I think students are recognizing that UNK is a great place to get their education,” Abels said. “Our health sciences and science departments have a lot to offer in terms of educating students and starting them down that career path.”
The Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP), a partnership between UNK and UNMC that started in 2010, also drives enrollment growth.
KHOP, which was designed specifically to address the shortage of health care professionals, provides full-tuition scholarships to UNK and guaranteed admission into UNMC, assuming all requirements are met, for students from rural Nebraska who are committed to practicing in that part of the state.
Vinnie Martin, a junior at Kearney Catholic High School, already has his eyes on the scholarship.
The 17-year-old wants to study pre-medicine at UNK then become a surgeon while remaining in central Nebraska.
“I’ve been interested in health sciences for a while now,” said Martin, who attended his first Health Careers Club meeting last week.
Although his father is a dentist in Kearney, Martin said his fascination with the human body and how it works draws him to surgery.
“I’m not giddish at all when I see blood, so I guess that kind of helps,” he added.
Martin is open to other health care careers, as well, which is why he signed up for the club.
“I hope to see what interests me,” he said.
KHOP, which offers hands-on training, research and experiential learning opportunities, professional development and mentoring for health sciences students, has grown from eight participants in 2010 to more than 75 this semester, with applications at an all-time high.
“We’re providing a big service to the state by recruiting and educating those students,” Abels said.