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Rural health care teen outreach programs booming across Kansas

The University of Kansas Area Health Education Center reports record-setting requests for events such as Night at the Lab and Women in Health Care.

A lab staff member demonstrates putting a monitor device on the head of a student while another student watches
Women in Health Care participants Peyton Walters of Beloit (Kansas) Junior/Senior High School and Kara Brakey from Spearville (Kansas) High School investigated the lab of Sandra A. Billinger, Ph.D., professor of neurology.

Kansas high school students have been showing more interest in health careers, according to representatives from the University of Kansas Area Health Education Center (AHEC).

The program, an outreach effort of the University of Kansas Medical Center, has regional offices located in Hays, Pittsburg and Kansas City, Kansas. AHEC, among other duties, organizes various events for teens across the state to promote health care careers.

“This year, we’ve had record application numbers for everything,” said Tina Goosz, continuing education coordinator for AHEC. Goosz is based in Pittsburg and handles programming for both high school students and current health care professionals.

Why interest matters

One of AHEC’s main purposes is to increase students’ interest in health care. That’s because of current and expected future shortages in careers such as nursing and family medicine, especially in rural areas.

For example, the Kansas Hospital Association reported 6-7% vacancy rates for nurses and nurse assistants in Kansas hospitals for 2017, but the vacancy rates jumped to 20-22% in 2021.

Getting teenagers to think about health care might make filling those vacancies easier, Goosz said. “We’re trying to make sure that students have a chance for health care career exploration, to hone their interest. We tell them, ‘Let’s make sure you have information in your hands before you make this big decision.’”

Night at the Lab doubles

Goosz said 90 teams from Kansas high schools competed in 2022’s Night at the Lab, nearly double the number of teams that participated in pre-pandemic contests. In Night at the Lab, students compete regionally by sharing a short oral presentation and a creative visual display on a health care topic. Finalists in regionals travel to the KU Medical Center campus where a panel of judges name a statewide champion.

Three students from Hays High School took home the trophy in 2022, coached by their science teacher, Lynn Zimmerman. Zimmerman started fielding teams for Night at the Lab in 2018, mostly from her anatomy classes.

“All the kids that take anatomy have the intention of probably doing something in health care,” Zimmerman said. “I just love that Night at the Lab gives the students a chance to connect with health care professionals. And it’s a chance to travel, to get to go to KU Medical Center. It energizes and it motivates them.”

Women in Health Care gets extra applicants

Another AHEC program for high school students is Women in Health Care, a three-day program administered from AHEC’s Pittsburg office. In Women in Health Care, junior and senior female high school students get the opportunity to interact with students and faculty from KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas.

Two students wearing gloves hold research materials in a lab setting
Carsyn Haviland from Humboldt (Kansas) High School
completed an experiment in the lab of Katherine F.
Roby, Ph.D., professor of cell biology and physiology,
as part of her Women in Health Care experience.

Goosz said AHEC previously received 30 or 40 applications a year from interested young women. This year’s event attracted 76 applications for the 14 available spots.

“Several teachers have asked me about expanding the program, given this level of interest,” Goosz said. “One suggestion was to have two sessions, one in the spring and one in the fall. But the budget becomes an issue.” Since participants pay no out-of-pocket costs for their hotel or meals while in Women in Health Care, more money would need to come from some source other than the participants themselves.

“We want to make sure that these opportunities are available to everybody and not just those who can afford it,” Goosz said.

Ella Rhuems, a senior at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Kansas, was selected to participate in the 2022 Women in Health Care. Rhuems wants to become a pediatrician, a goal she’s embraced since middle school. She said Women in Health Care solidified her commitment to becoming a physician.

“When I was in Women in Health Care, we went around almost every hour talking to a different department, talking with different physicians and staff members and also the health care providers at The University of Kansas Health System,” Rhuems said. “I’ve been very blessed with the number of job-shadowing opportunities I’ve had.”

Other outreach opportunities

It’s quite possible that the pandemic sparked additional interest in health care careers, Goosz said, and opened up a wider pipeline to health care careers. “Building the students’ knowledge and interest in these careers is an important part of that pipeline,” she said.

With that in mind, AHEC is ramping up awareness campaigns for other services they provide, such as:

  • Journeys and Destinations, a day-long health care career exploration event held regionally for high school students.
  • Pathways to Healthcare, which provides health care curricula to high school science teachers throughout the state.
  • HOSA-Future Health Professionals, which offers conferences, competitions and opportunities for high school students to engage in the health care field. Chapters of HOSA-Future Health Professionals meet regularly at their high schools, and the crowning event is a statewide conference that includes competition. “What Future Farmers of America does for agriculture, Future Health Professions does for students interested in health professions,” Goosz explained.

Of all AHEC’s teen and educator programs, Zimmerman of Hays High said, “These programs have helped my curriculum and given me an opportunity to connect with other professionals across the state. I love taking my students to meet other students from other schools so they can share the same interests. That’s important.”

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