EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 29, 2008

Colleges ramp up medical training programs to meet growing demand

By Bill Kirk

The patient stares blankly at the ceiling, his chest rising and falling in rapid succession.

"Doc, I feel like I could die," he says. "I'm feeling very dizzy."

The voice sounds real and the breathing looks right.

But Sim-Man, as teachers and students call the patient, is in no danger of dying and, in fact, is something of a hypochondriac.

Sim-Man is a simulated man who can be programmed to mimic just about any symptoms imaginable.

"He's great to practice on," said Kristina Farris, 27, a paramedic student from Methuen.

Paramedic, nursing and respiratory therapist students at Northern Essex Community College have been practicing on the manikin and several others like him over the last year as the college's Lawrence campus has expanded its family of manikins due to growing interest in the medical professions.

The growing interest in health careers is one of the factors driving the community college's plan to expand from its single location at 45 Franklin St. to a second location a block and a half away at the site of the old Intown Mall on Essex Street.

Other local colleges are also seeing growing interest in the medical field, from sports medicine at Merrimack College to laboratory services at University of Massachusetts Lowell.

The field is so popular at Northern Essex that some qualified students have to be turned away, said Jackie Long-Goding, dean of health professions at the college.

Currently, about 500 students are enrolled in health professions classes at the Lawrence campus, with about 350 students a year graduating with associate's degrees or certificates.

Once the school's new $22 million facility is built sometime in the next three years, more health professions classes will be offered, enabling more students to enroll and graduate after two years with a good shot at high-paying jobs, Long-Goding said.

Job opportunities

Farris, the paramedic in training, said experienced people in her field make up to $30 an hour, with jobs typically starting around $16.50 an hour. That's better than the typical pay for an EMT, around $10 to $12 an hour.

And the opportunities for employment seem limitless.

Josiah Peters, 24, a student from Methuen, said trained paramedics can work not only for ambulance companies and health-care facilities but also on oil rigs, mining sites and on forestry crews, to name a few.

"It's front-line medical work," he said.

But it's not just paramedics who are poised to get good jobs out of school.

Jonathan Goudreault, 22, of Haverhill, who is enrolled in the dental assistant program, is looking forward to making $12 to $26 an hour upon graduating.

The dental assistant program at NECC offers students hands-on training in dentistry, including practicing on lifelike and actual teeth, learning X-ray technology in a digital lab, creating temporary crowns and doing all the things dental assistants do in offices across the Merrimack Valley.

"Our students have no trouble getting jobs," Long-Goding said.

Another popular program is the two-year radiology technician program.

Merrimack Valley Hospital CEO Michael Collins said hospital staff have talked about the radiology tech program to Haverhill High School students who want to go into health care but don't want to go to a four-year college.

"Typically today, you go to a four-year program to become a nurse. That will generate income out of school of around $60,000," Collins said. "If you go to school for two years as a radiology tech, in a short time you'll be making $50,000 a year. Plus, you have total flexibility and can work at any hospital."

Merrimack programs

Interest in a medical career is also high among students of four-year colleges like Merrimack.

Janine LeBlanc-Straceski, associate professor in health professions at Merrimack, said more students with biology and even liberal arts degrees are going into the medical profession. Some take the traditional route, going to medical, dental, or veterinary school after graduating from Merrimack with a four-year degree, while many others go into nurse practitioner programs.

"If you have a bachelor's degree in biology, you can get into an accelerated program for nurse practitioner," she said. "Rather than going another four years through medical school, colleges like Northeastern, BU and BC offer two- to three-year nurse practitioner programs."

LeBlanc-Straceski said more hospitals and physicians offices are using nurse practitioners, who can see patients, prescribe medicine and perform many of the functions of a doctor.

"From what I see in the medical field, you now have a health-care-providing team," she said. "It's not just a doctor and receptionist anymore. It's lots and lots of different roles and jobs there for students at all levels."

One of Merrimack's more popular programs is sports medicine, which can lead students into athletic training, physical therapy and other professions.

Nurses in demand

Stephanie Chalupka, a professor in the UMass Lowell nursing department, said nursing is seeing the biggest growth in the medical field and more students are applying for admission to the program.

Chalupka said there are 300 students in the nursing undergraduate program at the Lowell campus.

The number could be even higher, she said, "but we're severely limited by a faculty shortage. We have wonderfully qualified candidates that we have to turn away and consider for the next year."

For this September's class, 344 people applied as freshmen and another 215 applied as transfer students. Unfortunately, there are only 50 openings, she said. Some 150 students remain on the waiting list.

The demand for nurses is expected to continue to grow, she said, as the population of baby boomers ages at the same time more nurses reach retirement age.

"The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 580,000 new nursing positions will be created through 2016," Chalupka said. "That will continue to make nursing the top profession in terms of growth in the United States."

Demand is also growing for lab technicians, the people who take blood tests and perform other duties physicians rely on for accurate information about their patients, said Kay Doyle, head of the Department of Clinical Laboratory and Nutritional Sciences at UMass Lowell.

"It's a gigantic job market," she said. "While hospital labs face the biggest shortage, lab techs are also needed in veterinary hospitals, public health labs, state toxicology labs and the FBI lab in Virginia. There are also jobs in microbiology, environmental testing for chemicals and biotech."

With demand high for their services, last year's senior class of lab techs landed jobs that paid $40,000 to more than $50,000 a year, Doyle said.

"We are seeing a definite increase in enrollment," she said. "It's a great job market, a great career with lots of different places to work."