The healthcare industry encourages on-the-job training to grow staff

Craig resident Dajia Lewis, left, learns while working at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center through the patient care assistant program, which helps introduce people to the medical professional. Sara Delgado, a certified nursing assistant nurse, trains Louis on a vital signs monitor in an empty patient room.
Susie Romig/steamer pilot still today

After two months working in the patient care assistant program at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, Dajia Lewis, 22, is considering attending nursing school.

The Moffat County High School graduate said she loves to study but has never been great on formal academic tests. That’s why the hands-on training program while getting paid to work in Steamboat Springs was so appealing to her as an entry into the medical profession. Three days a week for 12-hour work days, she learns while observing an instructor or nurse, about everything from tips on easing nervous surgery patients to removing an IV or catheter.

“It’s a good way to get your foot in the door. It’s definitely a good first step,” Lewis said. “You learn a lot and everyone is really nice and helpful.”

The Patient Care Assistant (PCA) program is designed for workers 18 and older who do not require a medical certificate or healthcare experience and begins with six weeks of on-the-job training. The program through UCHealth is just one way the medical profession is working to augment its own workforce in an era of staff shortages as the U.S. population ages and requires more medical services.

“It’s nice to be able to learn as you go,” said Lewis, who was hired full-time in October after starting in August. “It’s really a lot of teamwork and I think it’s a good work environment.”

Judy Davidson, UCHealth nursing support program coordinator, noted in a UCHealth media release that nursing assistants provide approximately 70 percent of direct patient care in hospital settings.

“We realized that we could train people with little or no experience in our own setting, allowing them to gain hands-on clinical experience to meet the needs of hospitalized patients and interdisciplinary teams. When units have enough PCAs and CNAs to meet patients’ care needs, nurses are able to focus on the medical needs of their patients,” said Davidson, noting that well-staffed nursing units help reduce burnout and nursing staff turnover.

Steamboat Springs High School graduate Christina Price discovered her professional passion through the SSHS Med Prep program and now works as an x-ray technologist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
UCHealth/Courtesy photo

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for registered nurses is expected to grow by 6% through 2031, and this is in addition to the significant number of nurses who have left the profession during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the launch of the PCA program in November 2021, participation has grown to approximately 200 on-the-job teaching assistants across the 12-hospital UCHealth system.

Another long-standing program that helps introduce teens to the medical profession is Medi Prep through Steamboat Springs High School. Med Prep students can participate in 15-hour rotations in a wide variety of YVMC departments, ranging from pharmacy to physical therapy, from obstetrics to the emergency room.

Former pre-med student Christina Price discovered her professional passion through the program and now works as an x-ray technologist at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

“I ended up being really fascinated with radiology and being able to look inside the human body with just the push of a button,” said Price, who graduated from SSHS in 2017. “Once I switched to the radiology department, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. The technicians I watched in radiology were really great mentors who didn’t hesitate to explain how everything worked. Now some of them are my colleagues who continue to help me get better every day.”

Maddie Leiber, a 2016 graduate of SSHS, calls the Med Prep program “an incredible and unique experience.” Leiber currently works at Steamboat Orthopedic & Spine Institute as a medical and research assistant and scribe, and has been accepted to medical school, set to begin in July 2023, with hopes of becoming a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.

Kip Rillos, former instructor of the SSHS Med Prep class of 2010 to 2021, estimates that more than half of students who graduate from the program are currently studying or working in health care.

Med Prep has grown in popularity over the years and now has 18 students in its senior year internship class, teacher Randy Homan said. Surveillance capabilities have expanded to other areas of health care, such as emergency medical care, ski patrol, and veterinary and surgical offices.

Another way to develop medical professionals in-house is the new UCHealth Ascend career program which started in February. The program helps employees continue to work but receive financial assistance for continuing education to advance their health care careers. The UCHealth system helps cover the cost of select clinical certifications, training programs and college degrees for employees, ranging from a medical assistant certificate to a master’s degree in social work.

“We currently have multiple employees working at YVMC while furthering their education through the Ascend Career Program and other assistance and reimbursement programs that are available,” said Mary Wirta, YVMC Human Resources Manager. “These programs are a significant investment by UCHealth and are positively impacting our recruitment and retention efforts.”

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