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Montana's Growing Demand For Health Professionals Spurs Education Initiatives

Recruiters representing over 70 employers from across the region visited the University of Montana this week.
Alyssa Grant (CC-BY-NC-ND-2)
With healthcare jobs in Montana expected to grow by 40 percent in the next decade, educators are working to train the next generation of health professionals.

Hospitals and clinics across Montana have long had a hard time recruiting doctors and nurses to serve the state’s needs. That can be true of other healthcare professions, too, like therapists, pharmacists and technicians. A new analysis this year says demand for healthcare workers in Montana is going to grow by 40 percent in the next 10 years.

Earlier this month, University of Montana President Royce Engstrom announced what he calls “a major new initiative” that could help address the state’s medical workforce challenge: UM Health and Medicine, or UMHM.

"We’ll use UMHM as a portal to build our university into the prominent health campus in the region, attracting faculty students and staff to UM to work and study in the health professions," Engstrom said.

We’ll have more on the details on that initiative in a moment.

It’s a potentially new part of a longer-term effort by Montana educators to grow more health care workers, one that reaches all the way down to K-12 schools.

Kayla Morin, a senior at Big Sky High School in Missoula, knows she wants to work in the health care industry.

She says she’s always been intrigued by science and is now whittling down potential career options.
Morin says the Health Science Academy Big Sky High offers is helping her make informed decisions. She’s already checked at least one career option off her short-list; registered nurse:

"The hospital setting is really chaotic actually. I would just rather be doing physical therapy, but I’m definitely grateful for the job shadows, because now I know that I don’t want to go into nursing.”

Kayla’s one of 300 students enrolled in Big Sky’s Health Science Academy. It provides a high school curriculum focused around practical health and veterinary science classes, with four years of biomedical science coursework.

Biomed principles are even woven into standard math and English classes. Hospital and research lab field trips are standard. Juniors and seniors get day-long job-shadowing experiences.

Big Sky Principal Natalie Jager says the first-of-its kind in Montana program offers students a truly 21st century education.

"As a school leader, the Academy is a way for me and for the staff at my school to make high school relevant."

Some students are already enrolled in Missoula College’s pharmacy-tech program. About half of the Academy’s seniors are earning healthcare industry certifications.

"That is the biggest on-ramp we can imagine. Kids are actually leaving high school with the ability to be a certified CNA or a certified EMT or a phlebotomist. That definitely speaks to the workforce development needs of this community.”

Big Sky Senior Cade Windmueller was part of the Academy’s inaugural class four years ago. The only thing Windmueller expected back then was plenty of anatomy lessons.

"I was right, it was a lot of anatomy and a lot of physiology and how the body systems work; how each individual organ works and I actually found it interesting."

Windmueller graduates this spring and wants to pursue a career in occupational therapy.

The Health and Medicine Initiative the University of Montana is proposing would potentially offer high school graduates expanded training opportunities in Occupational Therapy, or as Physicians Assistants.

"These are two of the many health care professions that have a significant economic forecast."

That’s Reed Humphrey, Dean of UM’s College of Health Professions and Biomedical Science.

UM College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences
Credit Josh Burnham
UM College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences

The proposal to create two new degree programs comes at a time when UM has just cut 191 jobs, and still faces a $4 million budget deficit. The new programs would probably require hiring seven or eight new faculty, and include 2-year certificate opportunities at Missoula College. Humphrey says it might take a million dollars up front to launch the programs, in part because the University would have to offer salaries competitive with what instructors could make in clinical settings, not just academia.

"Once they’re seeded and tuition revenue streams come into play, they’re always designed to be self-sustained, or sustainable programming."

Humphrey says the new occupational therapist and physician assistant degree programs would probably serve 60 to 80 students. He emphasizes that all the numbers at this point are very preliminary. UM is currently working on feasibility studies they plan to bring to University System Regents for consideration.

"We believe that there are creative funding mechanisms to try to help seed these programs."

Humphrey says the University anticipates looking for private funding and approaching hospitals in the state to help with start-up costs for the new programs. And he says they’ll probably look for public funding as well.

"I think it’s really incumbent on the legislature – their job, and our mission – is to meet the needs of Montanans, and if health care workers are needed in Montana, we need the legislature’s help. We need sort of like 'all hands on deck'."

There’s been an all hands on deck approach to growing Montana’s healthcare workforce since at least 2009, says Tracy Ellig, a spokesman for Montana State University.

"That work has been done collaboratively with all the university units, the 4-years, the doctorals and the 2-years, as well as the healthcare industry, as well as the state."

And there’s been substantial growth. At MSU, enrollment in health, education and human development courses has grown by a third since 2006, and its 4-year nursing degree program is up 21 percent over the same period. It’s added a PhD of nursing program that will graduate its first class this spring.

MSU's overall enrollment growth lately is in contrast to a decline in the number of students at UM in recent years. But Ellig says there’s plenty of opportunity to go around when it comes to meeting Montana’s growing demand for health care workers and health workforce education programs.

"The University System of Montana doesn’t even think it can meet 100 percent of the needs. The only way these problems are gonna get solved is by working together. There’s just no way that one university or even one segment of this whole piece is going to solve all the problems."

At this point, Ellig says MSU doesn’t have any plans to expand its health workforce degree and training programs in the immediate future. The University of Montana, however, has a state funded feasibility study under way for its proposed new occupational therapy program. UM hopes to launch a similar review for new physicians assistant offerings soon.

Leaders at both schools say there’s clearly plenty of student demand for the healthcare-related education they’re offering now. And there’s plenty of demographic evidence that Montana’s population is growing older, and that means even more demand for a healthcare workforce that at this point isn’t even meeting current needs.

This report was made possible in part by a grant by the Montana Healthcare Foundation.

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