Written by Kim Krisberg

Itati Perezw
Itati Perez

Itati Perez long had an interest in health care, but she wasn’t entirely sure which career route to follow. Today, just a few months after graduating from high school, she’s working as a registered nurse at her local hospital and studying for her bachelor’s degree in nursing. Ultimately, she wants to care for critically ill patients as an intensivist.

“Science was always my favorite subject,” said Perez, 18, a nurse at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg. “And (nursing) is so hands-on — it feels like I’m really giving back to my community.”

In May, Perez graduated from PSJA Memorial Early College High School in the Rio Grande Valley community of Alamo, with both a high school degree and an associate’s degree in nursing. Her education is the result of an innovative partnership among DHR, the Pharr-San-Juan-Alamo Independent School District and South Texas College, which came together about four years ago to develop a dual registration program that graduates high school students ready to join the nursing workforce. Earlier this year, the Nursing Career Pathway Program graduated its first pilot cohort of eight students. In fact, they were the very first students in the nation to graduate high school with a degree in nursing.

Forse
Forse

R. Armour Forse, MD, PhD, DHR’s chief academic officer, said the hospital’s role in the school program is part of its larger commitment to supporting the community and addressing the area’s nursing shortage. According to 2016 survey results from the Texas Center for Nursing Workforce Studies, the Rio Grande Valley is home to some of the state’s highest vacancy rates for nurses — more than 32 percent for nurse practitioners, for example, and more than 11 percent for registered nurses.

“For us, it’s a natural fit,” said Carlos J. Cardenas, MD, chairman of the board at DHR and current president of the Texas Medical Association. “We’re a community-focused and community-driven organization. It makes sense to want to recruit our young folks to come forward and work and grow in their community. We’re invested in growing our own.”

Cardenas
Cardenas

Cardenas also noted that many young people in the Rio Grande Valley experience significant hurdles in accessing higher education. A 2016 report from RGV FOCUS, an effort to improve college readiness and access in the region, found that more than three-quarters of students living in the Valley are considered economically disadvantaged, and only 22 percent of adults ages 25 or older have an associate’s degree or some college education. However, the report also found bright spots, particularly among young people ages 18 to 24, among whom 42 percent had an associate’s degree or some college education. Cardenas hopes DHR can raise that percentage even higher by helping to reduce the cost and debt of pursuing higher education.

“Education is key to bridging the disparity in income that exists in many families,” he said. “The more young people going into the health professions, the more of an example they can provide for those coming up behind them that this is achievable.”

Of course, widening the professional pipeline certainly isn’t a new endeavor for hospitals. But in Texas, that pipeline is increasingly crucial to the state’s future ability to care for a growing and aging population. According to the Texas Medical Association, the Lone Star State ranks 45th nationwide in the number of physicians per population, and federal data published in September finds Texas is home to more than 400 designated health professional shortages areas.

Fortunately, a number of Texas hospitals are taking the health worker problem into their own hands, offering young people in their communities a unique opportunity to get a head start in health care.

Exposing Youth to the Real World of Health Care
Kallur
Kallur

Several years ago, the Temple Independent School District reached out to then-Scott & White Medical Center, also in Temple, seeking the hospital’s input on a high school curriculum for students interested in the health professions. Those discussions eventually led to the school district’s new health care career track, which debuted three years ago and offers students both classroom and clinical learning.

“Temple ISD has been one of our biggest and closest-to-the-heart community partners,” said Ravi Kallur, Ph.D., senior vice president for education at Scott & White Medical Center. “Retaining these kids in the community is one of our greatest strengths.”

The track starts in 11th grade, when interested students spend up to 10 days shadowing a variety of health care professionals at Scott & White Medical Center, such as medial coders, patient service specialists, health unit coordinators and health plan associates. At the start of their senior year, students begin a 24-week academic internship at Scott & White. During the internship, students spend a couple of hours each day, four days a week learning from and working alongside a health care professional.

All the students first go through an orientation, as would any new employee, Kallur said, and are then matched with working professionals. During the fall semester, students get hands-on experience in two different professions; in the spring, they can choose to stay with those professions or select two new ones. After graduating from high school, students who successfully completed the academic internship can apply for an eight-week paid internship at Scott & White. Since the program began, four students a year have chosen the new high school track.

Jennifer Brooks
Jennifer Brooks

“The beauty of all this is we’ve actually hired three students from these groups as full-time employees,” he said. “It means something to the community and to us too.”

Of course, many hospitals still reach local youth through more traditional volunteer programs. At Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas, the Bernice and Brudus Meyerson Junior Volunteer Program has been welcoming young people into the hospital since the early 1990s, with its ranks recently averaging upwards of 275 members, according to Jennifer Brooks, the hospital’s special projects coordinator for volunteer services. Junior volunteers, ages 14-18, can apply for two summer sessions and help in nearly 30 different departments, from working in the gift shop and information desk to helping out nurses on the inpatient units and visiting with patients and their families.

Brooks said one goal of the program is to offer young people a peek inside health care as a potential career path.

“Every year, I’m amazed at how much life the junior volunteers breathe into the hospital,” Brooks said. “We want to make sure students realize that the purpose of being here is to give back to the community, but it’s also an opportunity to see where they might want to go in the future.”

John Jackson
John Jackson

John Jackson, 18 and a senior at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, first began volunteering at Texas Scottish Rite in the eighth grade, following in the footsteps of his grandmother, who spent 25 years as a volunteer at the children’s hospital. He’s volunteered all over the hospital, but said his favorite unit is phlebotomy, where he helps nervous kids make it though a blood draw.

Jackson said his volunteer experience solidified his decision to pursue medicine, with an ultimate goal of becoming a surgeon.

“Seeing all these kids getting the help they need and seeing the work that doctors do — it’s amazing,” he said.

Back in the Rio Grade Valley, the dual enrollment nursing program piqued so much interest that the regional hospital-college-school district partnership recently received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support and expand the program to additional high schools. DHR’s Forse noted that the program not only addresses the area’s nursing shortage, but also helps eliminate the financial barriers that many local youth face in accessing higher education.

“This program doesn’t come without a reasonable amount of sacrifice (for students and their families),” he said, referring to the heavy course load and regular shuttling among the high school, college and hospital campuses for both classroom and clinical learning. “It’s a testimony to the fact that there’s clearly a group of kids who are committed to their education and have a sense of what they want to do early on.”

Indeed, the program isn’t easy — of the more than 50 students who applied for the initial dual enrollment program, 20 were accepted. And only eight made it to completion. Perez, one of those eight students, said she had her own doubts about making it through. But with support from her family and educators, she crossed the finish line, taking a position at DHR in August as a nurse technician. On her second day on the job, she learned she passed her licensing exam and officially added the letters “RN” to her title.

Indeed, the program isn’t easy — of the more than 50 students who applied for the initial dual enrollment program, 20 were accepted. And only eight made it to completion. Perez, one of those eight students, said she had her own doubts about making it through. But with support from her family and educators, she crossed the finish line, taking a position at DHR in August as a nurse technician. On her second day on the job, she learned she passed her licensing exam and officially added the letters “RN” to her title.

“Wherever I go to further my education, I’ll always come back here,” she said. “My dad always told me, ‘just come back and help your people.’”