Health Careers Program influences students on medical career paths

Most middle school students have no idea what a phlebotomist is, but some South Texas students, inspired by interactive learning opportunities, have set their sights on health careers such as this one.

The Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) Coastal Bend Health Education Center (CBHEC) has introduced a variety of health-related career paths to students across the region. Its Health Careers Program reached more than 1,600 students in 2012, teaching them about careers such as medical technology and clinical laboratory science, pharmacy, phlebotomy (collecting blood samples), and respiratory therapy through a mobile medical library, annual conference and three-day summer camp.

Students observe and practice how to take blood sample on a mannequin arm

Students observe and practice how to take blood samples.

The program aims to spark students’ interests in health careers, especially career paths that haven’t been regularly pursued in South Texas but are in high demand.  An overwhelming number of counties spanning the region have been identified as Health Professional Shortage Areas by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  More health professionals are needed in the region, from primary care doctors to dentists, pharmacists and medical technicians.

“Our goal is that many of these students will choose health care careers for themselves and return to the region to help meet the current needs of the Coastal Bend,” said Cheryl Bullen, CBHEC program coordinator.

One way to accomplish this is the annual Future Health Professionals Conference.  This year’s conference occurred in February at Texas A&M University-Kingsville (TAMUK) and featured 12 hands-on workshops, including respiratory therapy, dental hygiene and neuroscience.  More than 400 students from surrounding high schools were given the opportunity to interact with professionals in these fields, try some of their day-to-day tasks and tour the educational training facilities. Since the event began in 2003, more than 3,700 students have attended.

Along with this conference, CBHEC awards 50 outstanding middle and high school students each year with scholarships to attend Health Careers Discovery Camp for delving deeper into the world of health science.  This year’s camp will be in June at the TAMHSC-Irma Rangel College of Pharmacy on the TAMUK campus.  Campers will spend three days interacting with professionals and instructors in surgical technology, infectious disease, clinical laboratory science, respiratory therapy and pharmacy.  They also will learn how to administer CPR, take vitals and conduct first aid, and properly handle an emergency situation.

Students use dental tools on a mannequin

Students practice using dental tools on a manikin.

CBHEC provides support for these students year-round by establishing health careers and future nurses clubs in local middle and high schools. Faculty sponsors help students select the most important classes for acceptance into advanced health education programs. The center equips the clubs with supplemental resources that include a hands-on mobile medical library featuring an array of training equipment such as an auscultation simulator to hear different heart and lung sounds, microscopes, and various slides teaching students to identify cells.

During one such visit to a Health Care Careers Club meeting at Martin Middle School in Corpus Christi, CBHEC staff introduced students to bacteria and viruses, explaining the transmission and reproduction of each agent. Students even practiced proper hand-washing by using a special product that, under a black light, shows how many “germs” are left on hands after an ineffective wash.  Another visit introduced students to the world of phlebotomy through the use of a task-training arm that teaches the science of drawing blood.

“These kids didn’t know what a phlebotomist was when they joined the club,” said Nelda Cummings, a registered nurse who also serves as the school nurse and club sponsor.  “Being exposed to these careers can really shape their future. They’ve learned about radiologists and what a respiratory therapist is. They get a head start at this age group with this program, and it’s been great.”

Following the visit, a student told Cummings she plans to become a phlebotomist.  It could happen, as Cummings has seen before.  A former member from the club’s first year who learned about pharmacy through one of CBHEC’s initial health careers events is now enrolled at the TAMHSC-Rangel College of Pharmacy.

“At this age, their minds are like sponges,” she said. “There is so much influence we have on what path they take.”

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