BUFFALO, N.Y. — About halfway between the library and the new health center on the D'Youville College campus, Nik Wallenda took a knee. The move would have been less jarring if the renowned daredevil wasn't walking along a taut steel wire strung up between the two buildings, five stories above the ground.
"What's up, Buffalo?" he called down, drawing out the last syllable. The crowd cheered back.
The stunt wasn't his alone. Wallenda was walking the wire on a clear, blue afternoon in mid-June to mark the opening of the $27 million Health Professions Hub, a new feature of the private college's programming and an attempt to extend itself into the neighborhood it has called home for more than a century.
Officials want the new center to be a resource for the city's West Side community, which they say reports high rates of disease and poverty, as well as help address healthcare worker shortages that have affected the western part of the state and are documented nationally.
The D'Youville event, replete with food trucks and carnival games, wasn't only meant to be a fun afternoon for locals. College officials also hoped it would draw attention to the Hub, which will offer an array of medical services in partnership with a regional healthcare provider as well as educational opportunities for the community.
D'Youville is one of many small and midsize colleges across the country leveling up their healthcare programs as a way to expand enrollment and contend with shortages in key professions. These schools are approaching that growth in a variety of ways, including by finding better alignment with regional employers and expanding their own programs with a focus on interdisciplinary education.
"We have an enormous demand for healthcare practitioners in allied health and nursing and physicians. So the demand is there and the market is there," said Phyllis King, vice provost at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and president of the board of the Association of Schools Advancing Health Professions. "Can we grow talent fast enough for what's needed?"
Spaces and places for teamwork
Four in five of the roughly 2,800 students at D'Youville are studying the health professions. They will be able to get hands-on experience at the Hub in a few ways. One is by helping licensed professionals provide care to patients across services including a pharmacy, physical therapy center and primary care clinic.
They will also be able to practice through simulation. The Hub includes several modular rooms outfitted to replicate settings such as a patient's home or an intensive-care unit, as well as a virtual reality space that could extend those simulations to settings like athletics fields and the scene of car accidents.
Bringing several disciplines under one roof will give patients a one-stop-shop for care, officials said. That includes nursing, physical and occupational therapy, and nutrition. Members of the public also will be able to take classes and attend events at the Hub and visit the ground-floor cafe. Officials hope to use it as a base for community outreach, too.
The space reflects a growing focus on interprofessional learning in the healthcare field, a trend spurred in large part by the relationship found between poor communication among the disciplines and high rates of medical errors.
The expectation for interprofessional education is well-known, but it's not well-integrated across traditional medical education platforms, said Thomas Burns, provost at Belmont University, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Belmont is thinking about how to bring other disciplines into the programming it will offer future physicians at a medical college it is in the process of adding. That could include the school's existing programs in pharmacy, physical therapy, nursing and social work.
"We have the chance to create from scratch that integration," Burns said.
Burns cited the documented physician shortage nationwide and in Tennessee, particularly in rural areas, as a reason to add the medical school. The goal, Burns said, "is to try to find individuals who are focused on community care, community support, community development and the practice of medicine as a more holistic enterprise, as opposed to simply treating disease."
Responding to workforce needs
Colby-Sawyer College, a liberal arts school in New Hampshire, is expanding with the help of its longtime healthcare system partner, Dartmouth-Hitchcock, to buoy itself in the face of the projected demographic trough in higher education, said its president, Susan Stuebner.
That includes increasing the size of its undergraduate nursing program to 125 students per cohort over the next five years. It counted 90 students in each of the last two years' cohorts.
The college, which enrolled just under 900 students in 2019, has also added undergraduate programs in addiction studies, healthcare administration, medical lab sciences and social work — all areas in demand at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the workforce at large, Stuebner said. Similarly, the college added two master's-level nursing tracks in nursing education and management, and this fall it will roll out an accelerated bachelor's in nursing program.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock is giving the college up to $3.25 million to help with these and other additions. The system alone had more than 1,000 vacancies to fill, according to a press release last year. The college raised an additional $2.2 million from other donors.
The changes are already helping the college grow enrollment. Adding the two master's tracks increased the graduate student population from a dozen to more than 40. Stuebner expects the accelerated nursing bachelor's program will add around 25 students this fall.
Accelerated programs are popping up across healthcare education.
"There are lots of questions about the time compression, and can we get them their degree sooner and faster," said Sarah Peyre, dean of the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester.
Increased urgency is showing up in other ways, such as with the development of shorter-term programs. Colby-Sawyer last fall added an online associate degree in health sciences. Employees from a handful of medical tech programs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock can opt in to the program.
Healthcare programs are also battling against shortages of clinical placement options, especially as many providers shut their doors to students during the pandemic, ASAHP's King said. Having enough faculty and space on campus to grow their offerings are also concerns.
In Northeast Ohio, a partnership between local colleges, employers and healthcare providers is looking at how to fill workforce needs more collaboratively. The region is home to a host of healthcare groups, including the Cleveland Clinic.
The Workforce Connect Healthcare Sector Partnership identified around a dozen healthcare careers in demand locally and then surveyed the education sector members about how they were addressing that demand. The group members plan to meet in July to share their findings and discuss next steps.
The goal is to identify what's working and exchange best practices, as well as find ways to fund those efforts, said Sue Krejci, the partnership's executive director. That could lead to new programs, adjustments to existing curricula or additional capacity at colleges.
"We're asking our employers to collaborate on some of these issues, to go from competitors to collaborators," Krejci said. "We also want our educational systems to do the same."
Looking beyond campus
D'Youville is exploring ways to expand on- and off-ramps into postsecondary education, said the college's president, Lorrie Clemo.
One approach is its Pathways Program, which began last fall and is primarily based in the Hub. The program targets locals who are out of the workforce or underemployed, and it offers them the opportunity to train as pharmacy technicians, certified nursing assistants and community health workers. The college hopes to add more options in areas such as medical billing and coding, and medical translation, starting with Spanish.
The program has served nearly 100 trainees so far and hopes to work with more than 300 this coming academic year, school officials said in an email. D'Youville is working with community groups and area healthcare organizations to find students.
"People in the community who maybe never thought they had the resources or the ability to become a pharmacist or a P.A. or a nurse practitioner can go through the Pathways Program … and that just begins to open the doors to other opportunities on campus and within the community," said Adam Grupka, director of healthcare and education at the new center and assistant vice president for academic affairs.
A New York state-focused Roman Catholic healthcare foundation provided more than $677,000 to establish the program. The college received other funding to help open the Hub, including $5 million from the state and $5 million from its healthcare provider partner, Catholic Health.
D'Youville wants to double the number of students it graduates each year in the health professions, and officials expect the Hub to play a critical role in doing so. But yet to be seen is whether the Hub will keep locals' attention.
Catherine Lopez, 33, attended the grand opening event with her sister. Lopez lives in the neighborhood but works in Williamsville, New York — about a 20-minute drive away — as a medical receptionist in an obstetrician-gynecologist office.
"I wonder if they are hiring," Lopez said. "I could walk to work."
Another local resident, April Whalen, 51, was similarly intrigued. Excited about the prospect of training at the Hub, Whalen, a nurse with the state health department, had grabbed an admissions booklet to check out.
"This makes me now want to go back to school," Whalen said.