As high school seniors across the Yakima Valley accept their diplomas this month, ten of them gained a year of experiences in healthcare that go far beyond a final cumulative GPA or class rank.
Since the early 2000s, Prosser Memorial Health (PMH) and Prosser High School (PHS) have collaborated to offer the Health Occupations Course. This year-long course is for selected high school seniors who are interested in pursuing health-related careers or have general healthcare and wellness interests. Students apply and go through an interview process during spring semester of their junior year in hopes of being one of the approximately ten students selected to participate their senior year.
Through experimental, observational and traditional classroom learning, students are exposed to the many aspects and features of healthcare. Students spend four days a week in rotations in different PMH departments — shadowing doctors, observing surgeries firsthand and riding along on EMS/ambulance calls, to name a few. The other day of the week is spent in classroom-style learning with lessons focusing on everything from anatomy to CPR to nutrition. With the robust and interactive nature of the course, this course is for the engaged and motivated. These students hold some of the highest GPAs in their graduating classes, while also being extensively involved in athletics, fine arts, employment and other cocurricular activities.
“Our goal is to provide a valuable healthcare-focused learning opportunity for local students, empowering them with knowledge and experiences to help guide their educational and career goals,” Julie Urrutia, who manages the course at PMH, said. “It’s remarkable to see the growth and insight these students gain – both professionally and personally – from the beginning of the school year to the end.”
PMH’s Karla Greene, RN, and Therapy Services Director Joe Ashton, PT, MS, in conjunction with Urrutia, teach the classroom portion of the course, and all clinical departments participate in the rotation part of the course. This combination of textbook and hands-on learning gives students additional knowledge to support their rotation experience.
“The program has evolved over the years and caters to the many styles of learning,” Greene said. “Ultimately, we want to provide useful, practical information to the students that drives them further in learning, asking questions and pursuing their healthcare career goals.”
In addition to healthcare education, students also practice public speaking, resume writing and interviewing skills.
“This program helped me grow, develop better interpersonal skills, initiate my own learning and gain immeasurable experience in the healthcare field,” student Ainsley Roberts, who plans to attend Washington State University to take the biology/pre-med track before eventually earning her doctor of osteopathic medicine.
The lessons and insights go far beyond medication management or medical terminology though.
“I loved this class so much because it was real-life, hands-on healthcare, not just reading out of a textbook,” Kristen Weber, who plans to attend Eastern Washington University to pursue an education and career as a surgical nurse, said. “During the course of the year, I found myself coming out of my comfort zone to experience new things and ask questions about what I was seeing. I have also learned valuable life lessons, such as death is on its own clock, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to help the patient except give love and compassion to them in their final moments.”
While many of the recent students plan to attend colleges in larger cities, it’s their background in small towns and collaborative efforts like this course that may bring them back to Prosser and the Valley upon graduation to practice medicine. As the country’s population ages and healthcare needs increase, health systems and other organizations are experiencing a shortage, or forthcoming shortage, of some medical professionals. The need is especially pronounced in smaller communities and rural areas. While students who are raised in rural communities may be more likely to practice in rural healthcare settings after graduation, studies have also shown that students who have educational or clinical experience in smaller community or rural healthcare settings are more likely to practice in such settings in the future.
“I have former students stop by the hospital and tell me they’re graduating from nursing school, heading off to medical school or pursuing this type of healthcare career,” PMH Emergency Medicine Physician Jacobo Rivero, MD, said. “It’s neat to know the impact and value this program had on them and the potential for some of them to even return to Prosser to work in healthcare someday.”
Some students have already slated that as a goal.
“I aspire to be a life-flight or ER nurse in the Valley because I would love to give back to my community through healthcare,” Natalie Munoz, who will attend the University of Washington for nursing this coming fall, said.
Motivated to learn and excited about the experiences, students like Munoz have gone above and beyond course requirements, volunteering at PMH on the weekends and school breaks too.
While the impact of the program is evident at PMH and for these students as they head off to college, the impact of the course stretches beyond the state. Not only are former students studying healthcare and practicing across the country and world, but a former PMH manager, Ben Murray, has even utilized the PMH course structure to establish a program at a Montana healthcare facility in recent years.
“When I relocated for another job in healthcare in Montana, the superintendent of the local schools was looking for greater collaboration between the schools and hospital,” Murray said. “I told him we had a wonderful program at my last organization, so I reached out to PMH for information and launched the program in Montana.”
About three years later, the program has exceeded expectations – hosting dozens of students, being featured on a statewide education panel [that highlighted new collaborative educational models,] and gaining the attention and a visit from the governor.
“Like at PMH, we bring the students right into the mix. They are a part of our team huddles, are brought into the culture and see ‘real-life’ healthcare,” Murray said. “This is some of the best outreach we can do within our community, and it is a model that makes sense in a small town.”
Urrutia hopes duplication like that in Montana will become the norm as the program continues at PMH.
“This program has an invaluable impact on these students, our staff, our schools and our community,” Urrutia said. “Not only are these students gaining healthcare knowledge and experience they can tap into for years to come, they gain skills and perspectives to help set them on the path for continued success in many areas of life.”