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Sunday, 08 November 2015 21:22

Expansion of health sciences education to address talent needs in West Michigan

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A partnership between three community colleges and Grand Rapids-area care providers brings a traditional model for training talent into a new area: health care.

Grand Rapids Community College, Muskegon Community College and Montcalm Community College teamed with West Michigan Works! to form a pilot apprenticeship program to train and employ medical assistants at local health care organizations.

An example of the growing academic offerings in the region in burgeoning health sciences fields, the program to start will train a minimum of 40 medical assistants a year who will spend six months working at one of the partnering care providers while they are enrolled in college and earning their certification.

Spectrum Health, Mercy Health, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital and Cherry Health have signed on to support the program.

The efforts seek to take what traditionally has been a model used to train talent in the skilled trades and manufacturing sectors and use it to address worker shortages in health care.

“We felt like this might be an innovative way to help to meet their needs,” said Linda Witte, program developer and manager of health programs for GRCC Workforce Development.

“It can be a good model,” Witte said. “The employers really want to get them started sooner and build capacity not only for new hires but to grow their own staff.”

The community colleges launched the effort in a high-growth medical field.

Colleges in a 25-county region of West Michigan graduate an average of 216 students annually trained as medical assistants, well short of the 669 positions that open each year through retirement and growth, according to the 2015 HealthCheck report from Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business. The annual report analyzes regional trends in health care.

The report cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics information that shows care providers in the region employed 20,640 medical assistants in 2010 and will employ a projected 24,170 medical assistants by 2020.

The pilot apprenticeship program is the first in the nation for medical assistants to earn accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.

Organizers hope to show that the apprenticeship model can adapt and work in health care “and you can be mentored along into a new career while you are learning and being exposed to it,” Witte said.

“That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish, as well as provide this path for employees once they get into health care. They’ll have this new model that will work to grow skills in health care,” she said.

If the apprenticeship pilot works out, GRCC can adapt it to other disciplines in health care, Witte said. She can’t say right now where the model could go next, although GRCC “will respond to employer needs and requests in designing future apprenticeship programs.”

“We are very interested to work with employers on growing capacity in health care apprenticeships,” Witte said.


The pilot is among the expanding number of initiatives regionally to train more people to work in growing health care fields.

GVSU, Western Michigan University and other colleges are continually expanding their health sciences programs.

WMU, for instance, has more than 3,200 students enrolled in the College of Health and Human Services in the current academic year, double the enrollment from a decade ago, said Dean Earlie Washington. In that same time, WMU has expanded and added several academic programs.

The WMU College of Health and Human and Services is presently planning to add a master’s degree program in public health in Grand Rapids in 2016 and recently added a program in health informatics with the Haworth College of Business, Washington said.

The unprecedented growth in WMU’s and other universities’ academic programming in health sciences stems in part from changing demographics and an aging population that consumes more health care, requiring a larger workforce at care providers, Washington said.

“It’s definitely the graying of America,” she said.

Likewise, the GVSU College of Health Professions has grown considerably in recent years, from less than 1,000 students seven years ago to more than 2,300 today, said Dean Roy Olsson. He expects the College of Health Professions to grow to 2,700 to 3,000 students within four years “if all of the programs open up that we think will open up,” Olsson said.

The growth reflects not just the aging population but the greater access to the health care system under the Affordable Care Act that has extended health coverage to millions of people across the country who were previously uninsured, Olsson said.

“So the needs are becoming greater right now,” he said.

GVSU most recently approved a dietetics program and extended the physician assistant program to its campus in Traverse City. More offerings are planned, including doctorates in public health, occupational medicine and genetic counseling, and additional programs for health informatics and clinical dietitians.

“We have a lot on our plate,” Olsson said.


At Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, plans are in motion to launch a master’s program in clinical mental health counseling in the fall of 2016 on both a part-time and full-time basis with cohorts of no more than 24 students.

In launching the three-year, 60-credit-hour graduate program, Aquinas looks to address a shortage of academic offerings in the Grand Rapids area to train mental health counselors, said Daniel Cruikshanks, chair of the college’s Department of Psychology & Counseling. The nearest program is at WMU in Kalamazoo, he said.

“There really aren’t very many (programs),” said Cruikshanks, who joined Aquinas a little more than two years ago to chair the department and help build the master’s program. “Aquinas looked like it was well-situated to offer a program like that.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the national demand for mental health and family counselors will grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2020.

As is the case in forming any new academic program, Aquinas College’s new master’s degree for mental health counselors stems from the demand for care providers, Cruikshanks said.

“There are parts of Western Michigan that are not adequately served for mental health services,” he said. “There aren’t enough mental health providers to meet the need.”

Cruikshanks expects that most of the graduates from the program will remain in the region, “although life happens” and sometimes “people want to go elsewhere.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed from its original version to update the name of Cherry Health, which changed its name from Cherry Street Health Services a year ago. 

Read 4011 times Last modified on Sunday, 22 November 2015 19:43

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