RICHMOND — An idea came to Del. Terry Austin two years ago when he was lying in a hospital bed in Texas while recovering from a treatment related to cancer.
The nurses and doctors around him at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he underwent bladder reconstruction surgery, told him about how they went to a special high school for teenagers wishing to enter the medical field.
DeBakey High School for Health Professions in Houston is an alternative to the traditional high school, offering a rigorous curriculum to better position students for college and future careers in the medical field.
Austin, R-Botetourt, wondered if that program could be replicated in the Roanoke Valley, where the health care sector is growing. He developed an idea for a pilot program in Roanoke city and Botetourt County for a similar curriculum to offer high school students.
“This is an opportunity to really set young people on a path to enter the medical field,” Austin said.
He pitched this proposal to Virginia’s General Assembly, and he’s trying to secure money through the biennium budget to make it happen.
A group of lawmakers is in the midst of hashing out a final budget for the legislature to approve. Within one version of the budget proposal is $700,000 for the pilot program, but the House and Senate need to agree to provide funding .
Instead of a standalone high school in Texas, Austin’s program would work toward a more uniform curriculum in Roanoke city and Botetourt County schools.
“Think of it as an academy without walls,” said Cynthia Lawrence, a Roanoke marketing business owner who works with education institutions and health care companies. She’s worked closely with Austin for two years on the pilot program.
The money Austin is requesting would go toward dual enrollment programs. The high school students can earn college course credits through such programs.
If Austin can obtain funding for the pilot, the goal is for a fall launch . The pilot will start with students in 10th grade, but the plan is to eventually have it begin with students in ninth grade.
Austin said he’s received support from Carilion Clinic, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and various community colleges in Western Virginia.
“Engaging more students in health, science and technology careers early in their schooling will help us fill the hundreds of in-demand clinical positions Carilion has open each day,” said Jeanne Armentrout, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Carilion Clinic. “We’re optimistic that our elected officials will find a way to fund this important program in Southwest Virginia.”
Austin has built a coalition of people to help him formulate his plan, including Todd Putney, vice president of human resources of Medical Facilities of America, which provides nursing and rehabilitation care.
Putney also served on Roanoke’s school board for nine years.
“We’ve seen tremendous growth in our health care sector in the Roanoke Valley,” Putney said. “But one of the keys to making sure that it’s a success is having enough talent to fill the needs in the health care sector, and that’s a challenge right now. We’ve got to look at the education system to build better workforce development pipelines.”
Putney said there has been significant progress in recent years as public schools and community colleges have enhanced their health care courses. For instance, Virginia Western Community College is expanding its nursing program. But Austin’s pilot program would speed up and expand on that to meet the needs of the region, Putney said.
“To really get going to meet the need and meet the demand, we have to start earlier with reaching young people,” Putney said.
Medical Facilities of America and Carilion are both experiencing nursing shortages, for instance. But there are many jobs in the health care industry beyond those that most readily come to mind, such as doctors and nurses.
Lawrence said there’s a need for people to work in jobs where health care and technology merge. For example, with an aging population in rural Virginia, she said there’s an emerging need for providing health care monitoring services to people aging at home.
“We have an opportunity to create a business and education model that sets young people on the track for careers of the future,” Lawrence said.