Nebraska groups create health sciences pipeline program for young students

A group of Nebraska health care associations and educators are going back to the beginning to address the state’s health care workforce shortage.

The Nebraska Health Careers Pipeline Program will create a hands-on, interactive health sciences curriculum for students in third through 12th grade that can be deployed in schools across the state.

Stacey Ocander, dean of health careers at Metropolitan Community College, said participants are finishing the curriculum now and will begin training this fall, working with existing after-school providers to deliver the lessons.

In January, they will pilot one-hour weekly lessons — with activities — for students in elementary grades with the aim of building to a yearlong, after-school program by fall 2024. Each week, participating students will be introduced to a different career in the health care field. For a youth who is not interested in health care per se, that could include data informatics. Such lessons can be delivered by people who are not health care providers.

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By next summer, the partners will be prepared to offer weeklong summer camps — four to five hours a day, four or five days a week — for students in seventh through 11th grade. Seniors will complete internships in a health care facility in their area of ​​interest in order to complete the service learning component of their high school education.

All of that, of course, will involve partnering with school districts and after-school programs across the country and with providers in a variety of health care facilities, from clinics to nursing homes.

“It’s very interactive, it greatly depends on our workforce partners,” Ocander said, noting that participants have buy-in from community college health deans and educational service units across the state.

Partnering to create the program is the Nebraska Hospital Association in collaboration with the Nebraska Health Care Foundation, the Nebraska Medical Association and Medica.

Jeremy Nordquist, the hospital association’s president, said the initiative was spurred by the state’s health care workforce shortage. A report released recently by the Nebraska Workforce Collaborative indicated that the state’s hospitals have job vacancy rates of 10% to 15%. In some areas, including critical care and behavioral health nursing, half or more of full-time positions are vacant.

The collaborative was announced earlier this year by 20 Nebraska health care and educational organizations with the goal of developing long-term health care workforce solutions by sharing information about the state’s current and future workforce needs and strengthening its health care education pipeline.

Hospitals, he said, are taking steps to retain staff coming out of the pandemic and to recruit workers through scholarship and loan forgiveness programs. Members earlier this year sought — and obtained — from the Nebraska Legislature $3 million a year to fund additional clinical sites for nurses to complete hands-on training.

But officials realized they needed to do more to start building the pipeline even earlier.

“We see this as a way to jump-start that interest in health care careers at the earliest ages,” he said.

Jalene Carpenter, president and CEO of the Nebraska Health Care Association, said people who work in long-term care describe an immense sense of purpose. But they often encounter those careers only because of personal experiences, such as having a grandparent in an assisted living facility.

About 30,000 Nebraskans work in long-term care. Staffing is down about 10% since the start of the pandemic. While it has recovered slightly, it’s not at the level that is needed, she said, which has resulted in closures of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, especially in rural areas. That results in backlogs across the health care spectrum, with hospitals unable to discharge patients for long-term care.

Said Nordquist, “The crisis is really having an impact on all of Nebraskans.”