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UM Initiative Designed To Address Growing Demand For Healthcare Workers

UM is positioning itself to become a prominent health campus in the region.

Sheila Stearns is barely three months into her interim position as president of the University of Montana.  The former Commissioner of Higher Education and UM alumna freely admits that she has plenty to learn about what’s happening on campus."There are so many interesting things that have been happening on campus that I thought, ‘Wow if I didn’t know about those, I’m thinking a lot of other people don’t either,' " says Stearns.

Stearns considers the UM Health and Medicine – or UMHM – initiative to be one of those interesting programs.

"If you want to go to medical school, you can come to the University of Montana and perhaps have a neuroscience major or a bio-med major of some kind. We have 40 majors in our UMHM that might lead you to a health professions degree," Stearns says.

Former University of Montana President Royce Engstrom announced the UMHM initiative just over a year ago. It was designed to help address a growing demand for healthcare workers in Montana. One analysis predicts that demand is going to grow by 40 percentover the next decade.

UM is positioning itself to become a prominent health campus in the region. It’s also faced declining enrollment since 2011’s record of over 15,000 students and needs to attract more students to campus. University officials want to highlight programs they hope will capture the public’s attention and imagination.

They believe UMHM can help do just that.

"We don’t have data yet to know how well we’re bolstering undergraduate enrollment in health sciences, but I know if we didn’t have it,  it wouldn’t be as strong," says Reed Humphrey, UM’s Dean of the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences. "Just this year we introduced an undergraduate neuroscience major which already has over 60 majors. If you’re a parent in Montana, and your kid wants a career in health professions, this is the place where they’ll get the broadest range and deepest resume."

The Native American Center of Excellence falls under the UMHM umbrella. It basically nurtures Native students who want to pursue pharmacy or health care delivery careers. It was recently awarded a million-dollar grant.

"Think about what a difference that will make to the numbers of students and the communities they will serve; most of them right here in Montana," says Stearns.

Wilena Old Person is program coordinator at UM’s Native American Center of Excellence. Old Person points out there are roughly 600 Native American students enrolled at the university. Is she satisfied with that number?

"No. We can do better," says Old Person. "One of the things we need to do is mirror the state population, which is 6 percent, and we’re nearing that. We can always do better, but that’s something we work on, my office works on, with our college and campus-wide."

No matter how – or if – the Affordable Care Act is altered, UM College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences Dean, Reed Humphrey, points out:

"We’re looking at three to four percent growth rates for the need of practitioners per annum for the next ten years, 16,000 jobs for the state of Montana, including replacing an aging workforce. Politics will always influence policy. We have to stay laser-focused on what our mission is about, which is preparing students in ways that will intentionally improve outcomes."

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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