Industry Voices—Healthcare is changing. We need to reach the future workforce earlier

By getting in students’ ears early, educators can ensure healthcare has access to a talent pool of truly qualified candidates with “career-ready” skills that stand the test of time. (Getty/wmiami)

A lot has changed since I entered the healthcare field in the early ‘90s. I worked as a medical transcriptionist, typing up medical notes that doctors dictated into their recorders. I did this for 17 years, during which time technology improved—especially voice recognition—changing and streamlining my job. 

Technology has only continued to advance since then. Artificial Intelligence has the potential to provide clinical decision support; 51% of internal medicine physicians use some sort of telehealth service and some companies are even creating “telehealth toolkits” that allow patients to perform certain tests at home.

Today’s healthcare providers must be ready for this change.

Realizing this, some medical schools have already started reevaluating their curriculum. However, an educational intervention can and should happen sooner—as early as high school, even. By getting in students’ ears early, educators can ensure healthcare has access to a talent pool of truly qualified candidates with “career-ready” skills that stand the test of time. For example, it’s just as important for them to know how to communicate well and work in a team as it is to know how to take someone’s blood pressure or give them a vaccination. 

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Career readiness hasn’t been the primary focus of our country’s school systems, though, and that’s a large part of the reason why we’re seeing severe skills gaps in so many fields. The nursing shortage has been a particularly hot topic, with more than 10,000 nurses in New York recently threatening to strike over being understaffed and overworked. If we are going to deliver the more than 200,000 additional nurses per year the Bureau of Labor Statistics says we’ll need through 2026, we’ve got to shift our mindset.

That starts with exposing students to their career options sooner, perhaps through exploratory programs or classes that let them know what jobs are the most in-demand and highest paying. I work with high school freshman who are only 14 or 15 years old, and after taking an intro-level healthcare course, one student told me, “I didn’t even know I was interested in healthcare!” It makes you wonder how many other students could come to the same conclusion given this opportunity.

Unfortunately, not every school district can offer this type of program. Online learning environments address this issue, plus help students develop a wide variety of transferrable, lasting skills. Obviously, they learn very important technical things like video conferencing—which will come in handy for eventual healthcare providers due to telehealth’s growing popularity—and get the chance to work with an assortment of computer programs and systems. But it’s the soft skills that really matter here since technology is always changing. Students need to be able to hold themselves accountable when they’re not being constantly watched by a teacher. They need to be able to troubleshoot and problem solve if they don’t know why something isn’t working correctly—they can’t just raise their hand and have a teacher come help them. And if they do need help, they have to reach out and ask for it, thoroughly communicating their problem in a way that the teacher can understand since they can’t physically see what’s going on.

RELATED: 5 questions that need answers for the future of medical education in the U.S.

Where healthcare is concerned, some people are brought up short by the idea of virtual learning. However, the most current systems allow students to enter and manipulate a virtual patient’s hospital room by clicking on the objects within. They can also take someone’s blood pressure or perform CPR via online simulations. And these video labs are so real, I’m fully confident that most students could go out, grab a blood pressure cuff and actually determine a patient’s blood pressure in real life.

Continuing education is important, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t be helping our younger students at least get a jump start on whatever comes next.

For some, that might mean college. For others like my medical assistant and medical billing students, that might mean taking a certification test and going to work right away. Those decisions are up to our students, but educators need to be the ones giving them the option.

Sherrie Shackelford is a Health and Human Services teacher at the Indiana Digital Learning School, powered by K12.