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The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare many vulnerabilities in America’s healthcare system, including a worsening shortage of nurses and physicians. But recent data indicates a new surge of interest in nursing, medical and other health-related career programs. Stephanie Sy has this report for our series “Rethinking College.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many vulnerabilities in the United States' health care system, including a worsening shortage of nurses and physicians.
But recent data indicates a new surge of interest in nursing, medical, and other health-related career programs.
Stephanie Sy has this report for our series Rethinking College.
Stephanie Sy At 55, Debi Kinder is taking a new path. Last year, the mother of two, plus dog Diva, was semi-retired and working a part-time job. Then the pandemic hit, and she was laid off. Sheltered at home, Kinder saw a gap that needed filling
Debi Kinder, Student, Gateway Community College:
I kept — I'm going to cry. I kept seeing the nurses on the news, and they were, like, sitting in the hallways, and they were just, like, crying. They were exhausted. And I was just, like, really driven to go see if I could help in any way.
So, she started training to become a licensed practical nurse, and got a full-time job at a local home hospice.
When she finishes her program in December, Kinder will take more courses to become a registered nurse, or R.N., a role with more responsibility and pay. Full-time school on top of full-time work is no easy task. But Kinder says she's prepared for the long road ahead.
What else do you think it takes to be a front-line worker during a pandemic? Because we're still in it.
I definitely have the endurance. I have done three Iron Man. I have done an Ultra run. And so I think that gives you the stamina. I'm not fast, but I never stop.
Kinder is part of a new trend. Last year saw record interest for many health-related programs nationwide. Medical schools saw applications soar by about 18 percent.
Public health programs reported spikes in interest for both undergraduate and postgraduate courses. And Kinder's school, Gateway Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, saw a 15 percent rise in interest for its licensed practical nurse and nursing assistant programs.
Margi Schultz, Director of Nursing, Gateway Community College: They really want to help people, and they want to make a difference. And they feel that this is a way to do it.
Margi Schultz is the director of nursing at Gateway.
A lot of students have cared for their family members who had COVID, and some of them were extremely ill. And they realized they weren't scared by it, or, if they did home care, they liked it, and they were drawn to that.
She says that some applicants are also attracted to the field because of the high demand for nurses at all levels.
There are more jobs than there are people to fill them.
The unprecedented interest that schools like Gateway saw last year has been dubbed the Fauci Effect, after prominent physician Dr. Anthony Fauci, who, along with other front-line health care workers, emerged as heroes during the pandemic.
Ming Lian and her fellow classmates are some of the lucky few accepted to the University at Buffalo's Medical School from a record number of applicants. Last year, the school saw a 40 percent surge.
Ming Lian, Student, University at Buffalo Medical School : During the midst of the pandemic, I had to focus on just getting by day by day and the task at hand.
Lian was working as a medical scribe, assisting doctors at a hospital in Brooklyn. When New York City became the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic, she felt powerless.
I was very disappointed in myself not knowing enough to help anyone. So, going through medical school will allow me to directly participate in patient care.
She had worked on her medical school applications for two years, and was ecstatic when she found out she was accepted.
That was incredible. It was an incredible feeling.
Dr. Dori Marshall is the director of admissions at the University at Buffalo's Medical School. She says that, like Lian, many first-year students were inspired by front-line doctors, but did not apply on the spur of the moment.
Dr. Dori Marshall, Director of Admissions, University at Buffalo Medical School: It's really a process that takes years to get themselves ready to apply for medical school.
She says last year's spike in applications is more likely attributable to other reasons, like moving the entire process, including interviews, online.
Dr. Dori Marshall:
The expense of flying here was gone with COVID. There was no overnight in a hotel. There was no travel expenses. The only expenses last year were really the application and then taking an hour for each of the two interviews. So I think that that had a lot to do with it.
Fully-online applications meant aspiring doctors could afford to apply to more medical schools.
Being able to do it virtually and at home saved me quite a bit of money, so that I can actually use those money to apply to more school.
These changes meant University at Buffalo saw a 59 percent increase in applications from first-generation college students like Lian, who moved to the U.S. from a village in China when she was 13.
But this rising interest won't mean more physicians anytime soon. Medical schools and hospitals have not increased class sizes and residency programs to meet demand. Back in Arizona, Gateway Community College has enrolled more nursing students, but students need hospital experience to complete their training, and those spots, as with physician residencies, are limited.
While students can practice in simulations like this one, it's no substitute for the real thing, says nursing director Margi Schultz.
You absolutely must get in there with real patients. And patients do different things than a simulator does. And you really have to be vomited on, and you have to really experience it up close and personal to be a nurse.
Student Debi Kinder is eager to join the fray.
What most excites you about the prospect of being an R.N.?
Being done with school.
I think just that — honestly, I hate to say it, but that feeling of accomplishment, of doing something I didn't think I was able to do, and then being able to help patients and interact with them and get that quality time.
She's got the bedside manner part down.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Phoenix.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
Maea Lenei Buhre is a general assignment producer for the PBS NewsHour.
Jason Kane is a PBS NewsHour producer, focusing on health care and national affairs.
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