KEARNEY — When John Masker graduated from Kearney Catholic High School in 2015, he knew he would stay in Kearney.
Now set to graduate again — this time with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska at Kearney — Masker still would like to stay in his hometown. But this time, he’s probably leaving.
“I’m just waiting to hear back from Des Moines,” said Masker, referring to the Iowa physical therapy school that accepted him as an alternate.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center’s physical therapy program based in Kearney, along with its program in Omaha and the University of South Dakota, declined Masker’s applications. He wasn’t surprised.
“That’s just the nature of PT. It’s very competitive,” he said. “Here, they take 16 kids, and that’s all.”
Losing young professionals like Masker is exactly what Kearney’s health care community, with constant vacancies to fill, wants to avoid. Demand for workers continues to outpace the supply, even though local health care education programs have expanded.
A 2018 analysis funded by the Nebraska Area Health Education Center noted that while the state has added many health care professionals since a similar study in 2009, there still are shortages in rural areas. Even Buffalo County is a state-designated shortage area for internal medicine and general surgery.
Cathrin Carithers, assistant dean of the UNMC College of Nursing – Kearney Division, said a nursing shortage has been constant since the early 2000s. As with all health care jobs, an aging population fuels the need.
One way to gain more health care workers in central and western Nebraska, Carithers said, is to keep them from leaving.
“Where students are educated is where they tend to stay. And so students who are rural tend to stay rural. They value that ... they’ve lived in a rural area and value health care for rural areas,” she said.
Efforts to grow local health care talent begin early. Kimber Bonner, vice president of patient care at CHI Health Good Samaritan, said her hospital reaches out to teens through programs such as a one-week summer camp that gives them a close look at careers in health care. It also has sponsored a certified nursing assistant class at Kearney High School for about six years.
Darren Robinson, president of the Economic Development Council of Buffalo County, said there are many local programs aimed at high school students:
- Central Community College offers a certified nursing assistant course through KHS, College and Career Day at KHS has panelists to answer student questions about the health care field.
- UNMC’s Simulation in Motion Nebraska brought a mobile lab to the KHS health sciences class. The lab has an emergency room and ambulance module, with training mannequins that simulate medical emergencies.
- UNK’s Central Nebraska Area Health Education Center started a Health Careers Club for central Nebraska high school students.
- The Health Occupations Students of America at KHS lets students participate in hands-on experiences at local health care facilities.
Once local students decide on a health care career, the Kearney Health Opportunities Program offers full-tuition scholarships to UNK and guaranteed admission to UNMC for rural students who want to stay in rural areas.
Health sciences programs at UNK and UNMC’s Kearney division increased enrollment with their 2015 move into the Health Sciences Education Complex. Carithers said the nursing college alone has seen a 25 percent increase in undergraduates, and a 50 percent increase in graduate programs.
Nursing and allied health was a major focus of Central Community College’s recent expansion, too. The college opened its new 63,000-square-foot Kearney Center in 2018. Robinson said his office helped raise $10 million of the $23.3 million needed for the new facility, and the “added capacity for medical education” has benefited area employers.
In November, the college received an anonymous $1 million gift that will expand its CNA and nursing programs.
Working closely with local health care providers, educators say, may be the most effective way of keeping students from leaving after graduation. Students come to Kearney medical businesses for their required clinic hours, for a summer externship program and for end-of-program classes that give them real-world experience.
In the nursing college’s externship program, the businesses hire students and pair them with nurse mentors. Before they graduate, nursing students complete a Transition to Professional Nursing class in which they work alongside professional nurses.
Douglass Haas, who teaches in UNMC’s nursing college, estimated 80 percent of his students get jobs in the hospital or clinic where they spent their transition class. It’s the personal connection that makes the difference, Haas said. He got his first nursing job at CHI Health Good Samaritan in Kearney in the primary care unit where he spent his transition class.
That also was the way Elizabeth Zimmer, who graduated from Central Community College in 2017, found her job as a registered nurse at Good Sam. She spent 40 hours following a nurse in the medical-surgical unit.
“I knew before I got out of school exactly what I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it,” she said. Zimmer even waited for a job to open, because the hospital wasn’t hiring immediately after her graduation.
Masker, who decided to be a physical therapist after injuring his ankle playing basketball, also is getting work experience while in school. He’s a technician at New West Orthopedic and Sports Rehabilitation in Kearney.
Three days a week he helps with paperwork, preparing charts and does “a lot of laundry.” But he also, sometimes, gets to lead patients through their prescribed therapy, or monitor patients doing timed therapies.