By Lisa Phu
A renovation to the University of Alaska’s College of Health building is slated to result in almost double the amount of graduates in three programs, slightly easing the current health care worker shortage in the state. The University of Alaska Anchorage is in the early planning stages after receiving a $4 million federal grant.
The grant, focused on construction, will be used to expand capacity and improve learning environments for students studying to be certified nursing assistants, surgical technologists and diagnostic medical sonographers.
Kendra Sticka, associate dean of clinical health sciences at UAA’s College of Health, said the university has limited physical space for those programs, which doesn’t allow growth. “We’ve kind of reached our max of the spaces that are designed for that sort of learning,” she said.
The renovation will result in increased lab and clinical simulation spaces at the UAA’s Sally Monserud Hall.
“We want to have our facilities really state of the art so students can train on what they’re going to be working on and really have settings that lend themselves to that interprofessional work, which is so critical in health care and so important as we look at patient safety issues and things like that,” Sticka said.
Instead of sharing space with other nursing programs, the certified nursing assistant program will get new dedicated space through the renovation, which will be a combination classroom lab.
“There will be space in the same room where students can learn from the textbook and then they can pop right over to basically a patient bed setup that has a mannequin and basically all the things in the room to practice the hands-on piece. They can go back and forth to really create a rich learning environment,” Sticka said.
UAA has similar improvements for the diagnostic medical sonography program. For surgical technology, Sticka says plans include increased clinical lab space and brand new simulated operating rooms to allow students interprofessional training “in a very high fidelity, real type of situation with other people who would be in the [operating room].”
Health care workforce shortage in Alaska
UAA College of Health currently graduates about 60 health care workers in the three targeted fields, Sticka said, which will go up after the renovation is complete. Forty certified nursing assistants will increase to 80, 10 diagnostic medical stenographers will go up to 20, and 10 surgical technologists will increase to 15 — totaling about 55 more health care workers a year.
“An additional 55 is great but, you know, it’s not going to solve the problem,” Jeannie Monk said.
Monk is senior vice president at the Alaska Hospital & Health Care Association, formerly called the Alaska State Hospital & Nursing Home Association. The organization last year commissioned a health care workforce statistical analysis of the industry.
Monk said the shortage of health care workers in the state is “very serious and concerning.”
“The trend has been going towards shortage for a long time, but the COVID pandemic just really sped up the problem,” Monk said. “It’s kind of like a perfect storm and a structural problem where we have an aging population in Alaska that needs more health care services as they get older, and at the same time, our health care workforce is aging and retiring, and then the pandemic just caused many people to get burned out and leave the profession.”
Monk said Alaska is competing with health care organizations across the country for all types of health care positions, from entry-level up through physicians and nurses. Monk said the analysis showed 1,400 openings each year for registered nurses alone.
The university’s focus on facilities is good, Monk said, but other obstacles to recruitment still exist, like enough faculty and the need for clinical sites to train at.
“There’s no one solution that’s going to solve this problem. We support all possible solutions,” Monk said.
Other efforts around the state include Alaska Pacific University’s health care workforce training programs and facility-based CNA programs.
UAA is in the design phase of the College of Health building renovation and doesn’t currently have an estimated completion date yet, Sticka said. The grant from the federal Economic Development Administration allows up to four years.
Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.