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A new wave of health care training facilities

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Medical training facilities at Elgin Community College in Illinois.

​Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from an article in the October/November edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Ask Elgin Community College (ECC) President David Sam to describe the tipping point—the day when his college and members of the community came together to meet the rising demand for nurses and allied health workers—and he’ll give you a date: April 7, 2009.

That’s the day that voters in Elgin (a city of nearly 110,000, 40 miles northwest of Chicago) and Kane County narrowly approved a $178 million bond referendum to fund the construction of several new buildings at the college, including the $41 million Health and Life Sciences Building. The three-story, 130,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility houses 29 classrooms, labs, and other teaching spaces for training students in 12 different health care professions.

“For several years, the community had talked about expanding our health care programs, but we knew we couldn’t do that without expanding our facilities,” says Sam, recalling that a similar referendum in 2006 had been decisively defeated by a 2-to-1 majority. “This time, voters approved a tax increase to support the college, and we’re very grateful to our wonderful district.”

A healthy investment

ECC is among a growing number of community colleges investing in new facilities and programs to train health care workers in a variety of professions, including nursing, radiology, health information technology, physical therapy, dentistry and surgical technology.

Community colleges have historically offered job training programs in health care, but with the growth of the “medical industrial complex,” the ongoing implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the aging baby boomer generation, the need for health care workers is expected to grow exponentially by 2020.

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The indicators are staggering: The number of U.S. health care industry workers rose to 14.5 million from 11.9 million, a 22.7 percent increase, between the first quarters of 2003 and 2013, according to the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program’s Metro-Monitor index of economic recovery dated July 1. Employment in other industry sectors grew just 2.1 percent over that time period. What’s more, one in 10 employees nationally now works in the health care industry, which accounted for 13 percent of job growth in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas over the course of the most recent employment recovery.

“Even though the health care field is in the midst of major changes, it remains a labor-intensive enterprise,” explains Martha Ross, Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program Fellow. “Employment will only grow as baby boomers age and are more likely to use health care services.”

She adds, “In a national economy that is still 2.5 million jobs short of its pre-recession peak, health care is a bright spot.”

Preparing for the demand

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a boom in health care job opportunities through 2020. BLS predicts a 26 percent spike in jobs for registered nurses, a 32 percent increase in jobs for pharmacy technicians, a 28 percent increase in jobs for radiologic technologists, and a 33 percent increase in jobs for emergency medical technicians, among other sectors.

Such figures make the slim 48 percent of the electorate who green-lit the ECC referendum look prescient. Supporters of the project say the entire community is reaping the benefits.

“The new Health and Life Sciences Building has certainly attracted a lot of attention to our health professions programs, and we’ve strengthened relations with area hospitals, clinics, and other health care partners that take our students for their clinical experiences,” says Wendy Miller, the college’s dean of health professions.

In addition to its existing curriculum, ECC at press time planned to add three new certificate programs for fall 2014—magnetic resonance imaging, computer tomography, and mammography.

“We’re also starting to offer noncredit, continuing education workshops for health care practitioners in our community,” Miller says. “So we’re not only preparing new graduates for positions in health care but also helping to improve the skills of current practitioners.”

Pooling resources

A consortium of three Maryland community colleges is taking an unusual approach to boosting their collective health care education offerings. The Mount Airy College Center for Health Care Education, which opened in August 2012, connects existing health care programs from three neighboring campuses, including Carroll Community College, Frederick Community College and Howard Community College. The town of Mount Airy sits at the intersection of all three counties, an epicenter for the collaboratively built facility. Students from all three colleges who study at the center are afforded the benefit of in-county tuition.

Experts say the combined structure allows participating institutions to operate more efficiently than they could on their own.

“The consortium, which was formed about 10 years ago, decided to build a facility where we could house our programs and share resources, so we wouldn’t have to replicate everything on multiple campuses,” explains Caroline Wood, director of the center.

Wood cites the high expense of health care training programs, especially costs for laboratory equipment. “Now, every student and faculty member has access to a range of incredible equipment, instead of only having a little for each program on each campus,” she says.

The cost of building and operating the center is split evenly between all three colleges, and several federal grants helped pay for the equipment.

The center offers associate-degree programs in health information technology and respiratory care, as well as for-credit certificate programs in health information technology and emergency medical technician/paramedic training. This fall, several new noncredit, continuing education courses were added in high-demand fields, including training for certified nurse assistants and pharmacy technicians and courses in oral radiography.

Each program is sponsored by one of the center’s three partner colleges, and an equal number of spots in each program are reserved for students from each college.

“In Biology 101, for example, we have eight seats for Carroll students, eight for Frederick, and eight for Howard,” Wood says. “A student would register through Carroll, take the class at Mount Airy, and it would show up as a Carroll class on his transcript.”

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