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Colleges have been choosing their curriculum — or areas of study — since higher education began. But successful schools have to be flexible and tailor their areas of study to meet changing demands of the job market.

Today’s state of health care has gaps: Local specialists are in demand, and the pool of family doctors (general practitioners) is shrinking. In response, St. Ambrose University in Davenport has created a curriculum that seeks to fill those gaps.

From its main campus on Locust Street, the university has graduated 2,152 nurses, therapists, social workers and, most recently, physician assistants.

There is a family physician shortage in Iowa, consistent with national trends, said Dr. Scott Bohner, president of the Iowa Academy of Family Physicians, Des Moines. More physicians head to the urban areas to practice, which leaves a shortage in Iowa's rural areas, said Bohner, who is a family physician in Decorah, Iowa.

According to America's health rankings, in 2015, Iowa ranked 45th in the United States for active primary care physicians, per 100,000 population. Illinois ranked 10th, but that ranking is lifted largely by population centers like Chicago.

"Not only are all physicians hard to come by, primary care is even more scarce," Bohner said.

The St. Ambrose University College of Health and Human Services is located at the Center for Health Sciences Education on the campus of Genesis Health System. Completed in 2010, a portion of the hospital property along Lombard Street was donated to the university with the understanding it would be used to educate health professionals.

St. Ambrose has been in the health-education business for almost 70 years. In 1951, then-named St. Ambrose College formed a partnership with Mercy Hospital, producing a certification program for registered nurses, or RNs. The program eventually shifted to Marycrest College until that institution closed.

In the 1980s, Ed Rogalski, former St. Ambrose president, worked with officials from Quad-City hospitals to identify specific needs for professional providers. The health and human services college then was created in 1987 as St. Ambrose evolved into a university, according to Sandy Cassady, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Health and Human Services.

The first programs were occupational therapy (1989) and physical therapy (1993). While both programs continue, additional majors have been added and/or upgraded to address the needs of the Quad-City area population, 30 years later.

The changes and additions have been widely embraced by students. According to St. Ambrose, enrollment in the health sciences programs was 607 students in 2006. Today, it is 1,042 students.

Nursing returned to St. Ambrose from Marycrest in 2000, and it is the most popular among the health sciences, enrolling 96 new students in the fall of 2017.

Competitive entry

Students who are accepted into St. Ambrose’s professional programs have some stiff competition.

This is true in the physical therapy program, now offered at the doctorate level, and in the physician’s assistant program, which started in 2014 at the master’s degree level. The physician’s assistant program recently received 640 applications for 30 positions. In physical therapy, the program has some 350 applicants for 36 positions.

“We have many high-quality students to choose from,” said Mike Puthoff, a professor in physical therapy.

In the physician’s assistant program, two classes totaling 59 students have graduated, so far. Of those, half chose primary health care jobs, said program director Kerry Humes. About one-third of them went to work in Iowa.

“That’s really our mission, to increase access to care,” Humes said.

One graduate: Emergency medicine

On Jan. 16, Devan DePauw, 25, passed his boards as a physician’s assistant.

“Now I have to apply for my license, through the state of Iowa, and then get my credentials, through Genesis,” he said.

DePauw completed the 29-month program at St. Ambrose and now plans to work in emergency medicine for Genesis. He enjoyed the program, he said, which he described as the right size for teamwork and professional learning opportunities in the hospitals.

He earned his undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Iowa and at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. He became interested in medicine in the first place, he said, because his father is a paramedic at Medic EMS, Davenport.

After he decided to become a physician’s assistant, DePauw applied to several programs in the United States, but chose St. Ambrose because he could live close to home. He and his dad, he pointed out, shared a parking lot when he had classes at the Center for Health Services Education and his father worked at the hospital on West Central Park Avenue.

Of his career choice, DePauw said he is a mid-level practitioner; he can assist physicians but he also can go into private practice.

He enjoys emergency medicine because of the fast pace. He first learned about the job when he served as an ER Scribe for two years as a college undergraduate.

“That just opened my eyes (to) how people in emergencies interact with one another,” he said.

He plans to begin his new career in February.

Local jobs open to grads

St. Ambrose has had a relationship with Genesis Health System for many years, and it recently gained momentum.

In the past two years, Genesis has hired 200 registered nurses, including 42 from the St. Ambrose program, said Heidi Kahly-McMahon, Genesis vice president of human resources.

In total, 118 St. Ambrose graduates hold positions in various functions at Genesis.

The hospital system also hosts 170 St. Ambrose students in clinical rotations, working in the fields of nursing, physical and occupational therapy and social work.

In addition, Genesis works with the St. Ambrose Career Services department, and is hosting mock interviews next month to help students prepare to enter the workplace.

“Their nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech, lab and other professions are a talent pipeline for our future workforce needs,” Kahly-McMahon said.

Graduates also find jobs at UnityPoint Health Trinity Medical Center, said Sarah Turner, director of recruitment. In 2017 alone, 31 St. Ambrose students were employed as nurses, physical therapists, in laboratory work and in the mental health field.

"We have hired many St. Ambrose University graduates for careers at UnityPoint Health over the years," Turner said.

One of the university's occupational therapists found a job at the Children’s Therapy Center of the Quad-Cities, Rock Island. Maggie Verdun, 24, grew up in central Illinois and fell in love with the St. Ambrose campus when she chose a college. “It was like home to me,” she said. While in college she managed both an undergraduate and graduate degree, and finished in December 2016.

“In the winter, I lived at home and studied for the boards, passed them, and started looking for a job,” Verdun said.

She was talking to the University of Iowa about a position when a job was posted for the Children’s Therapy Center. “I pounced on that,” she said, adding that she was thrilled to come back to the Quad-Cities to work.

She now helps children with disabilities learn day-to-day tasks, which include a multitude of therapies.

Verdun works on age-appropriate play and socialization and especially enjoys helping parents learn to accommodate their children’s disabilities.

Master’s degree, Public Health

The newest health services program at St. Ambrose is a Master of Public Health.

The program will kick off in August with 30 students and is fully online, which is attractive to working students.

This program was chosen after Cassady, the college dean, did research to study regional demand for health care. The master’s degree is most valued, she said. Public Health degrees also are offered at the University of Iowa and at Des Moines University, and Augustana College in Rock Island offers a bachelor’s degree program.

“We take our cue from local hospitals … but we also like to look beyond (at) what areas are in high demand,” she said. Cassady searches out data to support the program choice. In the case of public health, the program is supported through partnerships with the Rock Island County and Scott County departments of public health.

One of the first people hired to work in the St. Ambrose Public Health program is Melissa Sharer, originally from Geneseo, Illinois.

She said the program has real value and it resonates with millennials, plus, public health degrees have ramped up on both coasts of the United States.

The advanced public health degree is an inter-disciplinary profession that appeals to physicians who treat disease and infection and seek to gain expertise in prevention, Sharer said.

With degrees from the University of Illinois, and time spent in Africa for the Peace Corps, Sharer said her sense of social justice has increased — a value she said is reflected in the program.

“Public health is water quality; it is just everything with so many environmental and behavioral health factors,” she said.

Public health specialists are “disease detectives,” Sharer said, working in places like Flint, Michigan, on the water quality crisis.

“We help to fix health injustices,” she said.

The new program would have a synergy with the existing social work degree, one of the original programs added in 1995. Director Kathryn Van Blair sees future partnerships, as the public health practitioners have “big picture” views of a health problem, while the social workers are at the ground level, working with individuals.

The Master of Public Health degree fills a need in the Quad-Cities.

Janet Hill, chief operating officer for the Rock Island County Public Health Department, is a former assistant city editor at the Quad-City Times.

About 10 years ago, Hill went through a health journey herself and decided she wanted to help other people make health changes. She investigated the Master of Public Health programs in the area and found one at the University of Iowa and one at the University of Illinois, Chicago, which is just west of downtown in the western suburbs. Since the Chicago program was geared to working adults, Hill enrolled and began commuting once a week, a six-hour round-trip drive from the Quad-Cities.

Iowa City is closer, she said, but she could not make the class hours work with her regular job.

Hill is married, and her son, now in high school, was in fourth grade when she started her studies. The degree was a team effort for the family from 2011 to 2016, she said. Had the program been available at St. Ambrose, Hill would have considered enrolling in Davenport.

“That would have been a good fit,” she said.

The program was an appealing fit for at least one graduate. Tom Higgins, who serves on the university's governing board, gave St. Ambrose $1 million, including a bequest to start the Master of Public Health program.

Nursing most popular

Nursing continues to be a high-demand profession, and St. Ambrose is producing as many graduates as possible.

“We can’t make enough nurses to meet the need,” Cassady said.

The St. Ambrose nursing program is a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing, which Kurt Sturmer explains is one entry point to the profession. Sturmer, assistant professor of nursing, said evidence shows nurses with BSN degrees have room for advancement in the profession.

Strengths of the program include a high level of faculty skills, he said, with instructors who have doctorates and other advanced degrees.

In addition, the College of Health and Human Services is housed in one building, where there is daily interaction among professions, including occupational, physical, speech and language therapists, social workers and physician assistants.

The classroom work is paired with cadaver laboratories, and simulators, such as childbirth.

“These are controlled environments,” Sturmer said. “Students may not see a birth ever in a hospital, but they sure will see it inside our labs.”

Celeste Arteaga, 23, of Rock Island, is in the nursing program and has been accepted into the U.S. Navy as a nurse. She graduated from Rock Island High School, and in 2016, from Drake University, Des Moines, with a degree in health and clinical sciences.

Nursing is a profession that fits her personality, she said. Because of her degree from Drake, she will need just two years in the St. Ambrose program. She hopes to graduate next December, take tests in January, and set a date for the Navy’s Officer Development School. Her hope is to move to San Diego, California, for the Navy.

But the opportunity to stay close to her family for a few years is one reason Arteaga applied to St. Ambrose, knowing her future plans are likely to involve relocation. She has been working in local hospitals and is interested in a surgical specialty.

She agrees that teamwork is helpful in a learning environment.

“What we run into, in nursing, can be a surprise," Arteaga said. "We always just help each other out.”

Not the only one

High school students who want to be a nurse will find a variety of programs in the Quad-Cities; medical educational programs exist at the community college and college levels.

Cassady, the St. Ambrose dean, said that’s a good thing, as nurses are needed all over the health care profession.

The St. Ambrose health sciences programs are set up to cater to different needs, and Cassady said the college's 30 years of experience has produced efficiencies, including an emphasis on team approaches to patient care.

“We’ve been at that for years and are way ahead of others in the field,” she said.

To advance the teamwork goal, St. Ambrose last year launched the Institute for Person-Centered Care, with the help of Higgins, the alumni-donor from Oakland, California. The institute is the first in the Midwest and among a few in the United States.

The "whole person" approach to care is a growing movement in the U.S. and includes a more collaborative approach to treatment, through an integrated team of health care professionals.

Too many health care dollars are spent on patients with chronic conditions, who repeatedly use expensive emergency room treatment, Higgins said. Underlying factors to these physical problems are loneliness and/or depression.

This is well-known among health professionals, but it often manifests itself in unnecessary interventions, they say.

"We know what this takes," Higgins said, speaking in October during the launch of the Institute for Person-Centered Care. His background is as a state legislator, in the health insurance field, as a policy maker in President Jimmy Carter's administration and in several management jobs.

The university will host its first conference on person-centered care this spring. The event is May 31 and June 1 and will include a nationally known speaker and presentations, including from St. Ambrose health science students.

“I’m excited,” Cassady said.