Heather Sliger has 16 years of experience in the medical field as an x-ray technician and in a cardiac cath lab. Now, she is working to instill her passion for healthcare in Dalton Middle School students through teaching the inaugural class of a new healthcare pathway, implemented this year.
The Intro to Healthcare Science and Technologies class for 6th, 7th and 8th grade is part of a developing partnership between Dalton Public Schools, Hamilton Medical Center, Dalton State College and the Mercer University School of Medicine. As rural areas in Georgia are facing a critical shortage of medical practitioners, specifically from diverse populations, various institutions are seeking ways to recruit, train and retain students into the medical field. This partnership will do just that.
A car accident left Sliger unable to continue her work in the labs, so she left the profession to teach in the Blue Ridge STEM Lab. However, she said there's nothing quite like caring for patients, so she was grateful when the opportunity to teach the medical class came along. She hopes her passion for the industry will rub off and spark interest in her students to pursue a medical career.
"I get a lot of students who don't want to work with blood and needles, but I'm teaching them that the medical field needs engineers and designers, too," she said. "The goal is to help kids find a passion for the medical field and let them see the many jobs available. It's not just nurses and doctors."
The Intro class exposes students to many medical careers, the education levels necessary to pursue those careers, how much money they would make, etc. Sliger has had guest speakers come in to explain what they do and why they love what they do.
"After the radiation therapist and biomedical engineer spoke, students got excited and asked 'how can I do that?' Then, we researched jobs available here in Dalton so they know it could be a reality for them," explained Sliger. "It's great to have a dream. If we can plant that goal in middle school, then we are better able to follow through with helping our students make a plan to get there."
As the partnership continues to develop, DPS will offer more classes from this pathway at Dalton High School. There is currently a healthcare pathway at Morris Innovative High School that culminates with a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). The district hopes that by next year, the introductory course offered at the middle school will give students one high school credit.
Sliger said it's all about giving the students exposure, as many of her students will be the first in their families to either graduate high school or attend college. The natural progression may have led them to work where their parents work or to consider more technical types of degrees. They may have never really considered working in the medical field.
Sliger took a class assessment at the end of the second nine weeks that indicated six students have an interest in pursuing a medical career. She plans to take another poll at the end of the semester to see if there's been an increase.
One student, Jane Ramirez, said she realizes how important it is to study and know about healthcare. "What you learn in this class could save lives. The class is very educating and hands-on," she said. "So far we've tested our blood type, looked at samples under microscopes and tested our eye vision. The class really helps you learn more about yourself."
The class is made possible through the hard work of those involved in the community partnership. Hamilton Medical Center has pledged to donate supplies, like gurneys, blood pressure monitors, etc, twice a year. Employees from HMC also serve on the district advisory committee. They are giving feedback on what skills potential job candidates need so students can be adequately prepared.
Dalton State and Mercer medical students will be helping DPS students, as well. There are plans being formed now for a 2018 summer medical camp at Dalton State with the college students serving as mentors.
Two Mercer representatives spoke with the Dalton Middle classes on December 5-6. Laura Bland, director of community outreach and population health, and Stephanie Basey, assistant director of admissions, presented various barriers that the healthcare industry is facing, particularly in rural communities, including a shortage of medical personnel. Students did an activity with a ball of yarn, creating a metaphorical web of these issues, and then cutting the "barriers" away when they came up with a solution on how they could make a difference someday.
The Mercer speakers also gave students more information about the journey to medical school, with the idea that "you can do it." They discussed taking the MCAT exam, possible areas of study in undergrad, options for financial assistance and more. Mercer only accepts Georgia residents, and grades are not the most important factor, but rather, the student's mission, likelihood of returning to a rural community and volunteer work are more heavily considered.
"Mercer exists to train professionals to work in underserved areas of Georgia, because there is such a need in the state," said Bland.
Classes like the one at Dalton Middle create a pipeline for students to set their sights on medical school options, like Mercer, early. In turn, programs like this help the community job outlook.
"Before this year, I didn't know we were facing such a shortage in medical personnel," said Sliger. "Having Mercer as a partner helps us know our needs and how we can fill them. We also know how important it is for our students to stay local once they begin their careers and to give them the opportunity to do that."Jennifer Phinney, DPS director of school support and district CTAE director, said this new program at Dalton Middle School is just the beginning. "This four-way partnership between Dalton Public Schools, Dalton State College, Mercer University and Hamilton Medical Center presents a huge opportunity for our students and our community," she said. "The possibilities are endless and exciting."