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A woman in a lab coat sits working with many small vials in trays.

The estimated need for new medical technologists in Minnesota is about 150 to 200 a year, but current programs graduate only about 45 a year.

Center expands training in critical health professions statewide

Innovative partnership will use technology and selected sites to meet student needs

By Gayla Marty

Brief, July 26, 2006; updated August 15, 2006

The University of Minnesota is working to expand access to a wide variety of allied health care education programs--including occupational therapy and medical technologist training--thanks to a new center approved by the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.

The board approved the creation of the Center for Allied Health Programs, which will draw on program expertise from the University of Minnesota and work with other colleges and universities to more efficiently provide health care training through technology. The partnership aims to launch a learner-centered curriculum in fall 2007 to help fill a growing shortage of health care workers in key fields. The first focus will be the Twin Cities and Rochester in partnership with the University of Minnesota, Rochester.

"This leverages the unique resources of the University," says Regent Patricia Simmons. "That includes creative delivery of courses, research, and our extension service, which is a terrific strength. We're applying these to serve a critical, statewide need. Being able to cooperate with MnSCU (the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system) and the private sector is particularly appealing."

What are allied health professions?

If you want to work in health care, it's not just doctor, nurse, or dentist anymore. With advances in medicine and technology, health care professions in the 20th century expanded to create scores of new health career categories, from occupational therapist to lab tech--commonly called the allied health professions. Training programs for allied health professions have developed in many colleges and parts of the University. For more information, see the American Medical Association's Allied health careers and the Health Professions Network Exploring allied health professions.

In occupational therapy, an 8 percent vacancy rate is considered a crisis; the national vacancy rate now stands at 11 percent. The estimated need for new medical technologists in Minnesota is about 150 to 200 a year, but current programs graduate only about 45 a year. The outlook for some allied health jobs in Minnesota is predicted to grow by more than 30 percent over the next four to six years as the population ages and current employees retire.

"Today, there just aren't enough resources to offer the exact same programs in more than one place in the state," says Barbara Brandt, assistant vice president for education in the Academic Health Center. Higher education must be creative to meet the need. She cites the University's College of Pharmacy--a single college with delivery points in Duluth and the Twin Cities--as a good model.

The first change is that University degrees in occupational therapy and medical technology--two fields with critical labor shortages--will move into the center. Other programs may be considered in the future.

Winona State University is working to develop supporting courses and programs in the center and for other health professions. Other sites will be identified for their likelihood of success based on programs and prerequisites they currently offer.

A focus on student needs

The design of the new center grew out of recommendations from a task force working for a year to assess workforce and student needs as well as resources.

Programs will use a hybrid educational model that includes classrooms, distance education, simulations, and experience at practice sites. A student living in western Minnesota, for example, will be able to take some courses online. Other courses and training that require specific technology or hands-on experiences at a practice site will require traveling for short, intensive periods. Relocating won't be required.

Regents also approve health care administration program at UMR

In separate action July 12, the Board of Regents approved a master of health care administration to be offered at the U of M, Rochester. The program will serve professionals in the Rochester region who want to advance careers in health care management and health services delivery. For more information, see the news release.

"That's the vision," says Brandt. "Students are coming to us expecting a very different kind of education. We're catching up with what students want and need. With the substantial technology assets of the University, we have the ability to do that. The U has an amazing sophistication of resources."

Building strategic capacity

In addition to addressing allied health workforce needs in Minnesota and beyond, the new center will also help to create the next generation of faculty members in allied health professions.

The Center for Allied Health Programs is not a new program as much as a new way of cooperating to organize existing programs and resources in a rapidly changing environment. Demand in the allied health fields has been volatile for years. There are cycles of demand and oversupply of health care workers. Today, the demand for these fields is high for the foreseeable future, but that could change.

"We believe it is unwise to build out too much capacity," vice president Frank Cerra told the regents. "Rather, what is needed is a more flexible and agile strategy to adjust to the cycles of demand." The new center is designed to do exactly that.