Oregon is facing a major health care workforce shortage. According to the Oregon Employment Department, the growth and aging of our population contribute to this crisis, creating the need for an estimated 76,000 additional health care workers by 2020.
In a report from 2011, the Oregon Healthcare Workforce Institute stated that Oregon’s health care industry contributed a total of 325,528 jobs or 14 percent of the state’s job market and in Douglas County, a strong health care workforce will dramatically increase rural health status and improve our community’s economic vitality by adding jobs.
So while the supply pipeline of Douglas County’s future health care workforce extends from kindergarten through postgraduate medical training, the issue remains: How can Douglas County “grow its own” health care workforce? How, more importantly, can we create a sustainable health care workforce supply by keeping this pipeline full?
There are numerous ways to tackle the issues of supplying a health care workforce in a rural area. Education programs in public and private schools offer health literacy and health care career education and proficiencies. There are online education and certification programs that are facilitated by high schools and/or community colleges, and health care education extension programs.
Those programs, along with job shadows and career fairs, provide a myriad of opportunities for rural students to explore a future health care career. While most, if not all of these programs are effective in meeting the students’ needs on a temporary basis, many of these programs are geared more toward exposing students to a top layer of health care-related experiences. But they rarely touch upon the realistic dynamic energy of the day-to-day operations in a health-related office or department that would give students an accurate understanding of that profession.
A more effective way that health organizations can help a community meet their health care needs and build their supply of future health care providers is to create strategic immersive programs for students in order to draw them back to their hometown after post-graduate school.
For example, Area Health Education Center of Southwest Oregon developed a community education system of delivery called the Sustainable Community Model to educate and train students to encourage them to become health care providers, specifically in rural communities through immersive mentorship and volunteer programs.
By creating an environment where youth-professional mentor relationships “just happen” naturally, these experiences will take root and lead to positive cultural experiences. Why this is so critical is that students will want to return to the team setting they enjoyed so much. This creates a template for changes in the environment, policy and health landscape.
There are several guiding principles to develop a successful communitywide program. The health of a community will gradually improve over time due to the cross-sectional efforts of experienced adults and youth efforts. In addition, students will form positive relationships with adult mentors and be better informed on careers before entering college and be capable of making better decisions because of the expansive career exposure and their supports.
Often the first step to interesting students in certain health care professions i is to expose them to a career within its setting in order to generate a certain amount of excitement.
The next level is to provide students with opportunities to explore this new venture to see if it fits their personalities, academic levels and interests by assigning mentors and giving students an opportunity to volunteer. Then can then experience a health care setting culture. After that, it’s important to immerse students even deeper into a health care field by allowing for more hands-on opportunities, such as an internship, along with richer mentorship activity and an added curriculum.
Lastly, it is important to give opportunity for the student to discover ways to fully adopt a newfound culture, setting, and health care professional family. This may encourage them to make it a new home and profession in the future.
In order to keep the health care professional pipeline full, communities will need to provide adequate support and funding. This in turn will create a sustainable health care workforce in a rural area. The youth who live in a rural area are then the future of that rural area. If strategic programmatic systems are set in place, students of Douglas County can be the lifeblood of its health system.
In honor of the health care professional successes all across the pipeline in Douglas County, Area Health Education Center is hosting a Bright Night Run.
This Saturday at the Umpqua Valley Arts Association, the Bright Night Run will light up Roseburg and celebrate rural community vitality and our future and current health care professionals.
The Bright Night Run will be a family-friendly run/walk with a neon glow theme party. Proceeds will go toward sustaining and expanding these opportunities.
Chris Guastaferro of Roseburg is the executive director of Area Health Education Center of Southwest Oregon, which was established in 1994 to bring students to health care careers, health care professionals to communities and communities to better health. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-501-1566, ext. 204.