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Alexandria College combats healthcare shortage with new programs

The idea is to attract health care students to jobs at local hospitals and facilities.

With support from local hospitals, Alexandria Technical and Community College will launch two new health care programs next fall — Surgical Technology and Ophthalmic Medical Technician.

The goal: Students who graduate from the health programs will end up working in the area, combating the healthcare shortage at the local level.

According to a job vacancy survey created by Minnesota Employment and Economic Development in the second quarter of 2021, there are 39,727 vacant jobs in the health care and social assistance industry — the most out of every other industry in the state.

Job vacancies and the rise of filled beds in the ICU due to patients suffering from Covid-19 and others who need emergency care have required the state and hospitals to seek solutions.

An article from the Forum talks about the Minnesota nurses union leaders requesting hospital CEOs to promote more staffing and lawmakers to increase nursing wages.

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“We’re losing the war. The COVID-19 pandemic is worse than ever, ICU beds are full, and patients are back in the hallways and waiting rooms,” said Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner in the Forum story. “Nurses need more than words; we need action to address the crisis of staffing and retention to Minnesota hospitals. We cannot go on like this.”

Gov. Tim Walz deployed hundreds of Minnesota National Guard members to establish care sites and assist healthcare facilities to alleviate staffing shortages.

“We continue to deploy every resource we have available to support our overworked and understaffed doctors, nurses, and long-term care staff who have been fighting on the frontlines of this pandemic for nearly two years,” said Gov. Walz. “I’m grateful to the National Guard and our long-term care partners for their hard work and dedication to Minnesota patients. While the National Guard response teams and alternative care sites will provide critical temporary relief, our health care providers cannot bear the stress of any unnecessary spread.

Health facilities in Douglas County took a different approach to combat their need for workers by reaching out to Alexandria Technical and Community College to add new health-related programs to the curriculum.

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Jeff Wild

“By attracting students to our area to learn, statistically, they are more likely to get a job locally,” said Jeff Wild, the college’s vice president of advancement and outreach. “Our mission is to serve the needs of the employers and produce the most needed workforce.”

According to Wild, 80 percent of students who graduate from ATCC end up working in the area.

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New programs

The Surgical Technology program, in collaboration with M-State, trains future surgical technologists to be part of the medical team delivering care for patients before, during and after surgery. Current students are working on prerequisites for the program as the first semester begins during the fall semester of 2022.

According to Surgical Technology Program Advisor Darby Wacker, a certified surgical technologist herself and an Alex Tech Alum who graduated as an LPN in 2013, a surgery tech is an assistant to the surgeon in charge of the sterility of the tools, instruments and operating field during surgery.

“While sterility of the procedure is our number one goal, what we actually do goes far beyond sterility,” added Wacker.

The surge tech must also have a comprehensive knowledge of each procedure they were on to ensure they are handing the surgeon the correct tools at the appropriate time.

Local health facilities have agreed to allow the use of their locations for the clinical side of the program.

Surgical techs need experience in specific surgery specialties like ophthalmic, orthopedic, OB/GYN, general surgery, and more.

“It is important to have an array of clinical sites to work on specific cases,” said Wacker. “You have to know everything from delivering a baby to dealing with a burst appendix. If there is a site that is heavy on general surgery but not ortho, then, eventually, you move to a site that does more ortho surgeries.”

Outside of the operating room, they advocate for patients, securing their safety while in the hospital.

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The program is fulfilled due to outreach from local health facilities such as Glacier Ridge in Glenwood and Alomere Health. Like many healthcare positions, there has been a decline in surgical techs — a nationwide shortage, according to Wacker. One way to help combat the deficit is to attract students to the area with hopes they find a job in the area as well.

“Shortages in rural facilities have the largest hardship because of the lack of schools and because graduating students often end up in bigger, inner-city hospitals,” said Wacker.

Salary.com estimates that a surgical technologist’s average salary ranges from $40,000 to $46,000 a year.

The Ophthalmic Medical Technician program also begins during the fall semester of 2022 — the only one in Minnesota after the School of Ophthalmic Medical Technology in affiliation with Regions Hospital in St. Paul permanently closed their doors in May of 2020 due to declined enrollment, high cost of education and incompetence to find a medical director.

According to the program description provided by ATCC, a certified ophthalmic technician is a high-wage, high-skill career with many opportunities for advancement. Once placed into the job field, graduates from the program can expect to assist ophthalmologists by screening patients while assisting with clinical, surgical and laser procedures. They will explain procedures, tests, and treatments to patients.

The average salary for an ophthalmic tech in Minnesota — according to salary.com —ranges between $43,805 and $57,310.

Qualifying underemployed and unemployed Douglas County residents will have the opportunity to pursue these programs and others for free after ATCC received $500,000 from the Douglas County Commissioners for retraining assistance for unemployed or underemployed workers.

Alexandria College to receive ‘Rescue’ funds to help unemployed and underemployed
"The funding will pay for tuition, books, fees and other costs to attend," said Wild.

Another opportunity for healthcare

Nursing Assistant/Home Health Aid Courses will be offered at the ATCC on:

  • Jan. 10 through Feb. 24, Mondays and Wednesdays from 3:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

  • Feb. 28 through Apr. 7, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

  • Apr. 11 through May 5, Mondays through Thursdays from 3:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Classes will be held at ATCC in room 208. The cost for the classes is $803.39, which covers tuition, books, materials and background study.

Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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