By Bill Knief
From time to time throughout the summer, this column has devoted itself to what UNM-Taos Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill calls “our responsibility to model best practices” within the community. In keeping with that theme, today’s article is not so much about the health professions alone as it is about the underlying strategy of identifying robust workforce opportunities, providing quality training in those areas, and then completing the process by ensuring that the state, and in particular our own region of northern New Mexico, reap the benefits of those skilled professionals.
Last week the New Mexico Legislative Health and Human Services Committee met in Rio Grande Hall to discuss health issues relating to rural New Mexico, and at the end of a long day UNM-Taos administrators gave a presentation on their very successful nursing and dental assisting programs, along with plans to not only continue those programs in the face of severe budget cuts, but to possibly expand into other areas.
The committee’s response was interesting. They wanted to know how much student loan money nursing students had to take out in order to complete the program (between zero and $20,000), what their starting salaries were likely to be (between 50 and 60 thousand per year) and whether or not they planned to practice here at home after graduation (most did). When asked how long it would take for supply to exceed demand in these professions, Dean of Instruction Jim Gilroy explained that they had calibrated the size of the programs to meet but probably not exceed demand well into the future. At the conclusion of the presentation one legislator, noting the irony of a 50 percent cut in funding for our successful nursing program, said that such programs should be rewarded, rather than punished, for their successes.
The next day I asked Juliana Anastasoff, Coordinator of the Northern Health Extension Rural Office of the UNM Health Sciences Center operating out of UNM-Taos, about the long term viability of careers in the health professions. Citing the New Mexico Primary Care Physician Workforce Shortages study of July 7, 2010, she offered the following statistic: “New Mexico’s primary care workforce shortage will exceed 400 full-time physician equivalents in 2010. The expected shortage by 2020 will be 959…and increase to 1,571 by 3035.” This does not include specialists or support personnel.
Anastasoff described one program that she was involved in that sought to address the problem.
“It’s based on research that shows that if you recruit students early from underserved and rural communities and support them through undergraduate and medial school, they are more likely to come back and serve in rural communities. In other words we are trying to grow our own physician resources. Small communities have all experienced the revolving door of physicians that come through for a few years and then leave. This BA to MD program is designed to try to recruit our own physician work force here in New Mexico. We provide intensive support starting in high school, and if they complete pre-med and meet their entrance requirements they have a reserved seat in the School of Medicine.”
As part of the program, last month Anastasoff mentored four pre-med students here in Taos so that they could get a taste of what the practice of medicine is like in rural communities, and make the connection between the world we live in and how it impacts our health.
“We try to load them up with the rich support that they need to be successful. By the time they experience rural health care these students are between their sophomore and junior years in pre-med. While in Taos they worked with health and human services organizations, shadowed physicians, worked at Holy Cross Hospital and studied environmental and economic policy to see how it relates to health. They even worked with the planning department and town council on policy matters.
The problem Anastasoff sees is the need for higher academic achievement from children in rural communities.
“We support kids through high school in terms of health sciences, but sometimes it’s like jumping off a cliff for them to try to get into a professional career track.
“One critical element is that we’ve got to have dual enrollment classes, because we are raising the bar by which our high school students are prepared and competitive. Dual enrollment is absolutely critical to getting more rural students into the health professions. Our rural kids have a ton of assets on board in terms of tenacity and hard work, community connection and values related to family. They grow up with a competitive edge in terms of being able to work with diverse cultures. They develop an appreciation for cultural, ethnic and geographic diversity. If we can also make them more prepared academically, there’s no telling how far they can go and what they can achieve.
“Here’s the link to Taos: this November we will be putting out a call to all New Mexico high schools, recruiting students in their senior year to apply to this program. Those that are selected spend the summer prior to the beginning of their BA program getting up to speed in math, science and other key areas. They all live together in the same dorm with an intensive amount of support and counseling. It’s a great program that helps young rural students to be prepared to make such a big commitment. I would love to see applicants from all over Taos County.”