usd meets growing demand for health care workers with hands on high tech programs
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USD meets growing demand for health care workers with hands-on, high-tech programs

  • February 20, 2020
  • 15 min read

Whether they’re using dental instruments or 3D printers, doing patient simulations or digital image analysis, students at the University of South Dakota likely have health care-related jobs waiting for them when they graduate.

“We have a really powerful system of health care in South Dakota, without question, and they’re also really good jobs,” USD president Sheila Gestring said. “They’re high-demand jobs, and the employment growth projections going forward are also significant.”

The appeal and availability of those jobs is driving student interest in both USD’s School of Health Sciences and its emerging biomedical engineering program within the College of Arts & Sciences.

In many cases, students graduating with degrees from these programs will find their occupations projected to experience double-digit percentage increases.

The School of Health Sciences, founded in 2007, is the fastest-growing school at USD with 2,400 students among 13 major degree programs:

  • Addiction counseling and prevention
  • Dental hygiene
  • Health sciences
  • Medical Laboratory Science
  • Nursing
  • Occupational therapy
  • Paramedic
  • Physical therapy
  • Physician assistant studies
  • Public health
  • Social work

Nearly two-thirds of graduates over the last decade have remained in South Dakota.

“The long-term demand for healthcare professionals is going to continue to increase nationwide and in South Dakota,” said Haifa Abou Samra, dean of the School of Health Sciences.

“it’s expected to range anywhere between 11 to 29 percent depending on the discipline or profession.”


In-demand jobs

The dental hygiene program in the School of Health Sciences is so sought after that only about one in two applicants is accepted, and there’s steady demand for graduates.

It’s a unique program, allowing students to staff dental clinics in Sioux Falls and Vermillion serving those in need of dental care, as well as patients on reservations and in prisons.

“I became aware of the value of community involvement through my service as a student in community clinics,” said Hannah Poppens, a Brandon, S.D. native and USD graduate.

“I also benefitted through my work in those clinics, because I learned to serve a variety of patients and that helps me now as a practicing professional.”

Poppens now works in a Sioux Falls dental office, where she landed a position months before graduation.

“My practice offers patient-centered care,” she said. “That’s very important to me, and that’s something my dental hygiene professors taught us to deliver.”

USD’s unique addiction counseling and prevention program also is producing in-demand graduates.

Leon Leader Charge has an especially powerful story. The Parmelee, S.D., native and member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe earned his bachelor of addiction counseling and prevention at USD and now is working on his master’s there. He now works with an organization called Tribal Tech that works with tribes nationwide to create and implement substance abuse and mental health programs and curricula.

At USD, “I learned hands-on science,” he said. “I was taught evidence-based, prevention-based science. Because of my education and training, I am able to help people in my own community, and I’m also able to travel to tribal communities around the country and have a national impact. I am grateful for those opportunities.”

Students like Brooke Miller also know there are jobs waiting after graduation. With one year left in her nursing program, she already has one secured with Avera in her hometown of Pierre.

“It’s just been a whirlwind. Nursing’s been great,” she said, adding she loves the clinical experience students receive and the small-group settings they enjoy with professors to go over what they’re learning.

“We get to go into different hospitals, different settings and work hands-on with patients,” she said.

She will have completed two internships by the time she graduates – one last summer at the South Dakota Women’s Prison and one this coming summer in a hospital setting learning labor and delivery.

“I’m very excited about that and to get that degree,” she said. “And then I’ll be working in South Dakota and giving back to my community. I’ve always loved that small town community, and I want to give back.”

While Miller will be returning to her roots, other USD nursing graduates are recruited nationwide.

“Last year we had students who went to Arizona, Colorado, Mayo Clinic, Philadelphia, so national employers compete for our students,” Samra said.

“And we have more interested nursing students than we have the capacity to admit. We aren’t able to admit all the qualified students who apply, because of space limitations.”

To better accommodate demand for these and other health services programs, USD is hoping to replace an aging facility with a modern 45,000-square-foot building that will add contemporary classrooms, simulation and lab spaces.

“It will allow us to expand these programs, admit students who are wait-listed and fuel the workforce, because there will be more graduates available to employers,” Gestring said.

And employers definitely are interested in partnering to secure students. The School of Health Sciences leverages affiliations with more than 1,000 businesses and organizations that offer students work experience while in college.

Those public-private partnerships are becoming more and more critical, and we’re finding that sharing expertise, sharing the resources can really have a much greater impact than trying to do those sorts of things on your own,” Gestring said.

Biomedical programs take off

Education, research and industry all are coming together in Sioux Falls, where USD is growing its undergraduate and graduate programs in biomedical engineering. The department is part of the College of Arts & Sciences, and students often take courses both in Sioux Falls and Vermillion.

The growing biomedical field integrates engineering and medicine to address challenges in health care, exposing students to everything from medical device development to digital software-based analysis of medical images.

“It’s really an emerging industry in South Dakota,” Gestring said. “Our bachelor’s program is still very, very new but we do have nearly 20 students in that program. And our PhD program is full. We cannot accept very many, as it’s a very demanding curriculum.”

Sioux Falls resident Tim Hartman is one of USD’s first biomedical engineering undergraduates. He began by earning an associate’s degree in integrated science, taking courses in Sioux Falls, and decided to progress into the undergraduate program.

“I’m more of an equipment kind of person than working with patients, and this allows me to do that,” he said. “I work with high-tech microscopes and I’m working in a lab now where we’re making software for imaging and I’ve found I really like that.”

He could see himself pursuing a graduate degree and focusing on bioinformatics or computational biology – areas where he knows expertise is needed in the medical field.

“It’s a numbers field – a way to replace subjective human insight with automated computer analysis, and you can also incorporate machine learning,” Hartman said.

He had considered going to college out of state, but was impressed by USD’s vision for its Sioux Falls presence – which includes the Graduate Education and Applied Research Center, or GEAR Center, where he takes some of his classes and receives hands-on experience. The planned USD Discovery District adjacent to the property will allow for further commercialization of innovations and provide students with early career experience.

“There’s a lot of investment being made in biotech in the Sioux Falls area,” he said. “It would be awesome if this became like the Silicon Valley of biotech. That’s a vision I could latch onto.”

He’s not alone. USD anticipates more student interest as the biomedical program and its industry partnerships continue to grow.

“It’s an incredible opportunity having the GEAR Center right there on site,” Gestring said. “We have had several businesses, startups, incubate there and really get a start. And one of the future tenants of the Discovery District is currently in that building and waiting for the construction of the new facility.”

Students increasingly are remaining in the state to apply what they learn, she added.

“We’re finding our graduates stay in South Dakota,” Gestring said. “We’ve had 20 PhD graduates and 12 of them are leaders in the state right now.”

That also meets a broader goal for USD, she added: Preparing the state’s future leaders, regardless of the degree program they complete.

“It’s important for USD to always provide those community leaders,” Gestring said.

“From the state’s attorney office to the superintendents of schools to the leaders in health care and throughout the business community, many of them have gone through USD. And these also are active volunteers on nonprofit boards, school boards and city governing boards. The most important thing for USD is to continue that tradition of providing leaders to communities.”