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Colleges, hospital team up to train lab techs

POSTED: May 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
TOM REED /The Times

Medical technician Teresa Wilson prepares to do a white cell differential test in the lab at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

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Most people have heard that Georgia needs more doctors and nurses. But they may not be aware that there’s also a serious shortage of allied health workers.

The health care system couldn’t function without these professionals. They’re the ones who administer your ultrasound exam, run diagnostic tests when you have blood drawn or provide treatment when you are having trouble breathing.

"We are seeing shortages in all of these allied health fields," said Jo Brewer, director of laboratory services for Northeast Georgia Health System.

A report compiled by the Georgia Hospital Association in September 2007 found that the state has severe work force shortages in 13 allied health professions. But Brewer is especially worried about her own department.

"The average age of a clinical laboratory scientist in Georgia is 51," she said. "In the next three to five years, a third of my work force is going to retire."

But help is on the way. Brewer had already been in discussions with the Augusta-based Medical College of Georgia about setting up a laboratory technology school in Gainesville. Now, the college is launching an initiative that will go much further.

Through a two-year, $909,000 grant from the University System of Georgia’s Intellectual Capital Partnership Program, the college is creating distance-learning "nodes" in Gainesville, Athens, Kennesaw and Lawrenceville.

In each of these cities, a state college or university will provide students with basic science training, and local hospitals will provide hands-on instruction in clinical skills.

In Hall County, Gainesville State College will be the academic partner for the program, and Northeast Georgia Medical Center will be the clinical partner.

"We’ll offer core courses, such as biology and chemistry, and then (the medical college) will take over," said Mike Stoy, vice president of academic affairs at Gainesville State. "Mostly it will be business as usual for us. We already offer the first two years of curriculum for our nursing and dental hygiene students."

But Stoy does think the new program will attract people who are looking for alternative career opportunities.

"We’ll probably see an increase in enrollment in our allied health program," he said.

Elizabeth Leibach, chairwoman of the medical school’s biomedical and radiological technologies department, said the program will initially train 50 students across North Georgia.

Leibach, who wrote the grant proposal, said she decided to target the five allied health professions that seem to have the worst shortages: clinical laboratory science, diagnostic medical sonography (ultrasound), health information administration (electronic medical records), nuclear medicine technology and respiratory therapy.

She said it can be difficult to attract prospective students to these fields because the jobs are not easy.

"The curricula are intense, and they require a lot of background in science and math, which deters some people," she said.

Leibach’s other criterion was that students must be able to complete their courses via the Internet. She did not include physical therapy in the program, for example, because it does not have a Web-based curriculum.

Once the students finish their core work at Gainesville State and begin their clinical rotations at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, they’ll be taking most of their classes online.

"They can watch lectures taped at (Medical College of Georgia)," Leibach said. "They will also use clinical manuals prepared by (medical college) instructors."

In addition, several of the hospital’s employees will go through training at Medical College of Georgia so they can provide hands-on instruction to the students.

"Mostly, the grant will be used to pay the clinical employees who become instructors," Leibach said. "The rest is for equipment and faculty travel."

The two-year grant goes into effect July 1.

"We hope that after two years, the program will become self-sufficient through tuition dollars," Leibach said.

Hospitals will see a benefit from participating in the program, she said.

"People tend to stay, at least for three to five years, in the area where they did their clinical training. They’re already familiar with the workplace. That’s a big boon for the employer," Leibach said.

Through the program, Northeast Georgia Medical Center has agreed to hire six new clinical laboratory scientists, two ultrasound technicians, two nuclear medicine technologists and four respiratory therapists.

"We’re very excited about it," Brewer said. "We would be able to hire the best qualified individuals from the school. And I think it will enrich us as well. When you teach something, it challenges you to be better."



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