Examining Higher Education's Role in Health Care: New Curricula Offerings Reflect Expanding Components of Profession

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Examining Higher Education's Role in Health Care: New Curricula Offerings. Reflect Expanding Components of Profession

To meet health industry needs for thousands of physical therapists, occupational therapists and other trained health professionals, colleges and universities have revamped their course offerings. Even so, they turn down more students than they accept.

"Schools are being swamped with applicants," says Dr. Judy Barr, President of the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions (ASAHP).

Howard University, the first historically Black college or university (HBCU) to establish a College of Allied Health, fits in that category.

"We had sixty-five qualified students applying for thirty-two spaces in physical therapy," says Dr. Gene Gary-Williams, dean of Howard's College of Allied Health Sciences. "We had to turn them down. If we had more resources and facilities, we could be twice as large as we are now."

At Florida A&M University (FAMU), 500 applicants vied for sixty slots in last year's physical therapy program. Because of increased demand, FAMU had just increased its physical therapy program student population from last year's class of forty-five. According to Dr. Jacqueline B. Beck, dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences at FAMU, "When we recruit, everyone wants to be a physical therapist."

The National Commission on Allied Health claims that allied health professionals are the largest component of the health care workforce. More than 250 jobs are listed under allied health -- ranging from physician assistants and dietitians to physical, respiratory and occupational therapists -- providing more care to consumers than doctors and nurses. And the high demand for these programs is causing many community colleges to add on physical therapy (PT), physician assistant (PA) and occupational therapy (OT) programs.

Barr says, "Programs for physician assistants are doubling in numbers, in terms of new programs. Institutions see the demand for them. There was also significant growth in programs for occupational therapy."

A Lack of Programs, Faculty

But for most HBCU's, adding new majors is harder because of the funding these programs require. Fewer than ten HBCUs have allied health schools or offer allied health courses in other departments.

Dr. Elaine Williams, president of the National Society of Allied Health (NSAH), believes that the reason is, "These programs are expensive to operate -- which is why there are few at HBCUs. You have to have a strong clinical component, which increases the cost of training, because students have to be trained before they go into clinical settings....The [schools'] clinical settings have to be similar [to hospitals, HMOs, clinics, etc.] so the students will have the expertise they need to do well [in their internships]."

Williams says that at Los Angeles's Charles Drew University, where she is the interim dean of allied health, many programs are funded by grants and not dependent on tuition only. "Tuition would be prohibitive for minority students if the programs were tuition-based only," she suggests.

As president of NSAH, a group of African Americans in allied health, Williams says that in addition to funding, the society is also concerned that so few African Americans are seeking careers in allied health at all. Fewer than 4 percent of allied health professionals are African American.

"Physical therapy and occupational therapy are less representative with minorities. We plan to implement them at Drew," says Williams.

Beck said increasing the number of African Americans in allied health is a major concern of hers as well. "We've got to get them in the programs. In physical therapy, 1.7 percent of students nationally are African American."

She also criticized those who say they cannot find qualified minority students with strong backgrounds in math and science, a prerequisite for the programs. …