Compassion for others. Grace under pressure. A thirst for knowledge and a commitment to excellence in the classroom and beyond. You recognize these qualities in your child, and as he or she grows and develops throughout high school and your conversations turn to possible career paths, one or both of you might wonder if a career in healthcare might be a great fit. The ability to save someone's life or to make a difference in the well-being of others — preventing disease, fighting illness and improving their everyday lives — by helping them see, walk, breathe, move and speak better (just to name a few) can be the rewards of a healthcare career.
But getting into that “life and death” career space requires a deep commitment on many levels. A diligent approach to studying, the potential for many years in school, dedication to accuracy on the job and, most of all, an unwavering desire to help others is what it takes to achieve and sustain a successful career in this exacting field.
What if your child might not be a good fit for the rigors of med school or doesn't want to spend that much time in school but still shows passion for impacting the lives of others? Take heart: Healthcare is a booming field, and the commonly imagined paths of doctor or nurse are but two points of entry into the 21st century world of healthcare, one whose enormity now offers a wide variety of steady jobs that don't require a medical license (which means less time spent in school and less financial investment).
In December 2015, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported that healthcare will be the fastest growing industry in the U.S. and will add more jobs than any other field to the employment sector from 2014 to 2024. Together with the social assistance sector, healthcare is poised to add another 3.8 million jobs to our economy during this period.
How do you figure out if healthcare is right for your child? And if they are already interested, what needs to be done in high school to get on the path toward a healthcare career? With this four-part series, OurHealth aims to guide you so that you can guide your child on the journey to a career in healthcare. In our first four installments, we will cover high school, undergraduate, graduate curricula/clinical studies and finding a job in your chosen healthcare career, respectively (see our sidebar at the beginning of the article).
Following the fourth installment, we will begin a series that focuses on one position in healthcare and describes the specific steps that students interested in the field must take from the beginning of their education through their first day on the job.
Build a foundation for success
While a career in healthcare is more accessible than ever before, it still requires planning along with a strong high school transcript, participation in extracurricular activities, high SAT and/or ACT scores and a spotless personal conduct record to gain entry onto its path. After all, the reason for all the demanding preparation and practice for healthcare careers is their focus on the health and lives of people — an area with no room for error.
Starting in ninth grade when most students enter high school, their transcripts become the official record of their school success — one that’s scrutinized for acceptance to colleges and universities. So it’s important to start strong out of the gate, both to produce a competitive high school record and to build the skills needed to prepare for and perform in a healthcare career.
First, set your child up for success. That means creating solid study skills that will serve them well in high school and college. “Developing a good work ethic, focusing on attention to detail and being able to follow directions are very important skills for a high school student to develop early on,” says Judith McKeon, director of admissions at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke.
At the foundational level of learning, it could prove beneficial for students to discover and work with their natural learning style before focusing on study skills. Visit www.vark-learn.com and www.educationplanner.org for learning style self-assessment questionnaires students can use to determine if they are visual (learning by seeing), aural (learning by hearing), read/write (learning by reading and taking notes) or kinesthetic (learning by simulation/demonstration) learners. Strategies to help students learn better using their preferred learning style are provided.
Test taking, of course, is a big part of the study skillset and one to actively develop, even if your child already gets good grades. Though school and good grades might come easily for your child, it’s not necessarily an indicator that his or her study habits and test-taking skills are well-developed. Investing time now in building studying and test-taking skills will help your child perform at a high level through what could potentially be more than four years of college plus any board certifications or licenses associated with specific careers.
One way to become a better test taker, according to researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, is to incorporate what they call “retrieval practice” into a student’s study habit skillset. Retrieval practice is as it sounds – the practice of calling up information from memory. Once a student is asked to recall or produce a piece of information (who was the fourth president of the United States? for example), he or she is much more likely to remember it in the future. While retrieval is often used as a method for assessing how much a student has learned (test taking), being tested multiple times on facts a student needs to know for a test is more effective than simply reviewing those facts, according to Washington University researchers. The takeaway is that practice tests help students retrieve information. Encourage your child to ask teachers for any available practice tests on course material rather than simply reviewing books and notes, and offer to test him or her periodically prior to exam time. (For more on retrieval practice, visit Washington University’s www.retrievalpractice.org.)
Do your homework on healthcare careers
With the foundation in place, do some exploring. Research the many career options in the healthcare industry, says Carole Graham, dean of health professions at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, because it offers a wide variety of positions that extend beyond that of doctor or nurse. “At a young age, children tend to see healthcare with a narrow view of becoming only a doctor or nurse. The truth is, there are so many more fields that are open to them,” she says. “It would be to their benefit to explore some of these options on their own or with their parents' help.”
Healthcare career options don’t always require an advanced degree and licensure — some administrative and support staff positions can require a four-year degree or a two-year associate degree along with additional training and certification in some cases. Medical health services managers, for instance, are responsible for the day-to-day administrative management of physician’s offices, hospitals and clinics; the position typically requires a bachelor’s degree in health administration. An occupational therapy assistant works with an occupational therapist to help patients who’ve lost or have difficulty with some of their independent living skills — such as brushing their teeth and getting dressed — due to injuries or illnesses like strokes and heart attacks or lifelong conditions such as cerebral palsy. Becoming an occupational therapy assistant requires a two-year associate degree (Virginia Western’s occupational therapy assistant program is the oldest in the state; it began in 1992), along with additional fieldwork in a healthcare setting such as a hospital or doctor’s office and a certification exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.
U.S. News and World Report ranked occupational therapy assistant No.1 on its best healthcare support jobs list and No. 25 on its Top 100 Jobs list for 2016.
Consult online resources for healthcare career information with your child as well. Websites such as www.explorehealthcareers.org, www.alliedhealthschools.com and www.healthcarepathway.com offer specific information on a vast number of healthcare careers, including individual career educational requirements, schools that offer those required degrees, cost of education and job market predictions for specific positions.
Research colleges online and ask questions of admissions representatives to find out what their graduate placement rates are in your child's healthcare area of interest. Consider making appointments with colleges as early as ninth or 10th grade. In addition to taking a campus tour, make appointments with admissions representatives to ask about specific degree options and find out what their corresponding course maps are to get an idea of what the actual classwork might look like at that institution. Also ask about opportunities for your child to sit in on classes in his or her interest areas. “Our program heads love having students come in and talk about what they need to do for their futures,” says Graham. ”That's what we're here for, that's what we should be doing in promoting young students into these fields.”
While researching careers, it’s smart to also check out scholarship and financial aid options. Together with AP and dual-enrollment classes offered by high schools, considerable savings on tuition await. In fact, according the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of first-time, full-time, four-year, degree-seeking students receiving some kind of financial aid increased from 80 percent in the 2007-08 academic year to 85 percent in 2012-13. Research a wide variety of scholarships online via the College Board’s Big Future (www.bigfuture.collegeboard.org) and the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student aid site (www.studentaid.ed.gov).
Students can also explore career options through their schools. Many high schools offer an introduction to health occupations course or an EMT (emergency medical technician) course, which can give students a taste of what it’s like to work in healthcare on a daily basis. Colleges also might offer exploration opportunities for high schoolers. For example, the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, in a collaboration with Virginia Tech, offers a Summer Enrichment Experience designed to expose high school students in medically underserved areas of Appalachia to healthcare careers in a weeklong summer camp that focuses on human anatomy as it relates to healthy lifestyles and the practice of medicine.
Make curriculum count
Strength of schedule should be a top high school priority in addition to making good grades. “Cover the academic basics. That includes good grades, the particular courses they take and testing,” says McKeon. “Our high school applicants must bring with them transcripts that show prerequisites that we require — English, higher level mathematics at or above algebra 2, completion of biology and chemistry. We also require an SAT or ACT score.” In short: make friends with math. And science. Most high schools require three years of math for a standard diploma and four for an advanced diploma, and many college health career education programs, including Jefferson College of Health Sciences, require four years of both math and science, which includes biology, chemistry and algebra 1 and 2, for acceptance.
Science and math classes encourage critical thinking, and because they are covered on the SAT and ACT, taking these classes all four years of high school keeps skills sharp come exam time.
The great news regarding these subjects is that dual-credit and AP options are plentiful and can not only give students a leg up by strengthening their transcripts, they can also provide valuable experience in college course work. And students earn college credit for these courses, which saves money for tuition later on. Virginia Western, for example, offers dual-credit courses in anatomy and physiology, among others, through its Regional Academy (high school sophomores and juniors can apply); many of a student’s earned credits will then transfer to four-year institutions.
Widen your scope to stand out
Becoming an attractive prospect to colleges, especially those on a career path to a healthcare career, is about more than a 4.0 GPA. Colleges seek applicants who can distinguish themselves from the pack by demonstrating their ability to get good grades while also contributing to the world around them — both from a social consciousness and a time management perspective. Extracurricular activities through school and in the community help to show colleges that a student is thinking about and contributing to more than his or her grade point average. The idea is to be well-rounded.
For example, community-minded activities are an important part of student’s application to Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM), says Bill King, vice president of student services. “We have a community-oriented atmosphere here at VCOM, and part of our mission is to look for individuals who, as physicians, want to be an integral part of their community,” he says. “Those types of activities use qualities that are transferrable into the type of caring physician that we want in osteopathic medicine.”
By broadening his or her scope, your child can become better-rounded while getting some real-world exposure to caregiving situations to help him or her decide if the environment might be a good fit in a future career. Community service, extracurricular activities and school leadership roles show that a student can take on more than just an accelerated course load. The volunteer activities your child performs can serve a dual purpose as an opportunity for discovery and experience in real-world healthcare settings during the exploration phase.
Reputation management matters
Finally, on the social side of the equation, students seeking a healthcare career need to be cognizant of their conduct and reputations outside of the classroom. In today’s lightning-fast information age, it’s more important than ever to be aware of what’s circulating on social media and the Internet and how their personal conduct could affect them for years to come.
Because healthcare careers revolve around the handling of people's private health information and the prescription of medications to people in vulnerable states, there are few that don’t require some type of background check and/or drug screening. Therefore, what might seem like a minor or one-time "learning experience" from a developmental point of view (DUI, alcohol or drug-related charges, poor driving record, academic cheating, for example) will come back to haunt them when it comes time to apply to colleges.
Though the process of discovering and navigating an educational career path into a healthcare field can seem overwhelming at first, if parents focus on creating a partnership with their children that fosters exploration, research and a drive to do their best right from the start, young people's passions will begin to emerge and click into place along the road to the to a career in healthcare.
We hope the information and resources available in this article will help you start your journey to your career in healthcare. Throughout this series, we will provide additional information on each series’ section on our website, www.ourhealthswva.com. Look for Part II of the How to in Healthcare series where we will focus on your students plan for undergraduate school.
Judith McKeon, director of admissions at Jefferson College of Health Sciences
Carole Graham, dean of health professions at Virginia Western Community College
Bill King, vice president of student services at Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM)