High-schoolers probe health careers

The students learned about general medicine, dentistry and mortuary science.

Marni Ginther

Fifteen-year-old Fallon Boyle carefully drilled away at a cavity in her patient’s tooth Tuesday at the University Dental School’s lab in Moos Tower.

The tooth was plastic, and her patient was a metal head mounted on a dentist’s chair, but for the Minnehaha Academy junior, the experience was as close to the real thing as she’d ever been.

It was part of Health Career Investigators, one of three two-day summer programs for high school students sponsored by the University’s Health Careers Center and other schools in the Academic Health Center.

The program is a way to promote interest in health professions among high school students, but it also is part of a comprehensive solution to larger issues in the fields of public health and health care.

Tricia Todd, the center’s assistant director, said that within the next 30 years “we’re going to have more people over the age of 85 than in the history of humankind, and a doubling of the number of people over 65.”

Because older people tend to need more health care, and the baby boomer generation – which makes up most of the current health workforce – will retire soon, Todd said the ratio of providers to patients will continue to grow larger. This means that every health professional will need to care for a significantly larger number of patients than today – when health professionals already feel stretched.

“What we’re going to see is an increase in demand and a decrease in the ability to meet that demand in the health workforce,” Todd said.

That’s where students like Boyle come in.

She, along with more than 100 other applicants, had to write short essays and submit her high school transcript to be accepted into the program.

“We’re looking for the students who already show an interest in health careers and are most likely to stay interested,” Todd said.

Boyle said she found the application process “reassuring,” because it meant the other students who went through the program with her were there because they wanted to be there.

“It’s good that they made sure (the program) wasn’t just people whose parents sent them,” she said.

Scott Simpson, a career consultant with the Health Careers Center, said the program, currently in its second fully developed year, already is becoming competitive.

“We had over 100 applicants for 75 spots,” Simpson said.

Another issue in the future of health professions, Todd said, is that while nonwhite populations are growing, that growth is not being matched in the health care workforce. So it is becoming more and more important for those populations to have a stronger presence in health professions.

Todd cited projections from the Office of Higher Education in the Minnesota State Demographic Center that predict that by 2015 the number of white high school graduates in Minnesota will decrease by 17 percent, and the number of nonwhite graduates is expected to increase 40 percent.

“We know from research that the quality of health care improves if a person can have a health care provider from their own culture,” Todd said. “It immediately builds trust, and trust is a foundation of health care.”

In the interest of providing higher-quality care to quickly growing nonwhite populations, Todd said it is essential to interest more students from those communities in all health professions.

“We do try to recruit from communities of color,” Todd said of both the summer program and the schools in the Academic Health Center. “If people from these communities don’t plan to go on to college, we will see a continual decline in students from communities of color both in college and in professional health careers, and as a society, we can’t afford that.”

At the program, sisters Kristi and Angela Moua, both students at Blaine High School, talked with mortuary sciences director Michael LuBrant about their Hmong culture, and how it relates to the mortuary science profession.

In certain Hmong religions, the girls said, there can’t be any metal inside the body at the time of burial.

LuBrant was familiar with the custom, and said surgically removing any metal medical or dental devices in the body is a procedure morticians would do to fulfill the requirements of the custom.

“We kind of wanted to see if he knew about the customs,” said Kristi Moua, “And he did. Even though (mortuary science) seemed kind of creepy, it’s cool.”

LuBrant mentioned to the girls that he didn’t know of any licensed Hmong morticians in Minnesota, which the girls said they found interesting, given the large Hmong population here.

When it comes to health education, the University is the flagship institution in the state, Todd said, and in the case of some schools, they are the only ones in the region.

“We are seen as a major producer of health professionals,” Todd said. “And we have a real distinct responsibility for the future of health care in this region.”