Wiregrass takes the pulse of the health care industry

December 4, 2012

VALDOSTA — The health-care and social assistance industry will create approximately 28 percent of all the new jobs in the United States between 2010 and 2020 as an aging population with extended longevity boosts the demand for qualified professionals, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That breaks down to five to seven million new jobs in the health-care industry alone. The BLS also projects that the wages for these new jobs will rise by 27 percent through 2014.

With these statistics, it’s no surprise that Wiregrass Georgia Technical College has 40 percent of all of its students enrolled in allied health programs. “Our programs are built and designed for workforce development,” said Angela Hobby, executive director of public relations and information for Wiregrass. This part of South Georgia is becoming one of the regional health-care centers and while other colleges, such as Valdosta State University, offer pre-med and nursing degree paths and soon a new health sciences building, Wiregrass fills the gaps of the countless other positions needed throughout the day-to-day operations of a hospital.

At Wiregrass, there is a total of 22 allied health programs throughout its Valdosta, Ben Hill-Irwin, Coffee County and Cook County campuses, with a total of 1,636 students enrolled. “These professionals will be needed now and in the future,” said Paula P. Pena, allied health dean. By the year 2020, 5.6 million health-care workers will be needed in the U.S. and Wiregrass is making sure these jobs will go to its students. For the 2011 academic year, allied health programs had a high rate of job placement, most — such as the Health Information Coding program — at a rate of 100 percent. “They need our graduates,” said Hobby.

The health industry is quickly becoming more technology reliant, not just with the tools used to diagnose and treat patients, but with the way it keeps records and file insurance. “Doctors offices at some point will have to go electronic to get help from the government,” said Pena. “Hospitals already do this.”

Programs, such as the newer Health Information Technology, have become popular because of industry demand for these particular program graduates. The Health Information Technology program is a sequence of courses designed to provide students with the technical knowledge and skills necessary to process, maintain, analyze, and report health information data according to legal accreditation, licensure and certification standards for reimbursement, facility planning, marketing, risk management, utilization management, quality assessment and research. “It combines medical coding with electronic health records,” said Pena. Program graduates develop leadership skills necessary to serve in a functional supervisory role in various components of the health information system. Pena said individuals who obtain these skills are incredibly valuable to both hospital and doctors’ offices. “You have to be very careful in coding,” said Pena. “Coding wrong means you don’t get paid.” In order for a doctor’s office or hospital to get paid, the procedure performed on a patient has to match the diagnosis exactly. If that is coded wrong, health-insurance companies will not cover the cost.

The Health Information Technology program has been at Wiregrass for three years and it has already graduated two classes. In September, the program became officially accredited. The accreditation is a valuable asset to students in the program because it qualifies them to sit for the national exam. “The hospitals want that certification,” said Pena. All of the Wiregrass campuses have a strong relationship with the local health-care industry. South Georgia Medical Center has sent some employees through the Health Care Access Associate program — which teaches students to interview patients when they first arrive at the hospital and take their insurance — and Azalea Health Innovations even donated software written for students to utilize in classes. “We make sure our students are trained with the most up-to-date software,” said Hobby. Wiregrass also sends its allied health students to clinical rotations throughout South Georgia. The reach spans across Reidsville, Douglas, Fitzgerald, Occilla, Tifton, Thomasville, Waycross, Lakeland and even some parts of Florida. “We will try to find clinical slots for them in their area,” said Pena. “We extend way out.” Wiregrass President Dr. Ray Perren and others from the college meet with health-care industry leaders and hospitals on a regular basis. For Wiregrass, it’s important to know the needs of the industry so it can develop the programs to allow students to fill the holes. “We try to make sure we’re at the table listening,” said Hobby. “We try to find out what occupations they are predicting they need in this area.”

While most of the types of programs at Wiregrass are associate degrees, they serve as great jumping-off points for those wanting to go to school while working and even those who use the school as a stepping stone to a university to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Pena said the quality of education that Wiregrass offers is second to none and the hands-on approach prepares students to immediately enter the work force. “I think technical colleges overall are more hands-on than most four-year colleges,” said Pena. While in some fields a degree is necessary, in the health-care industry, it is more about your skill rather than your school. “A lot of the time in health care, the certifications and wide skill sets matter more,” said Pena.

More information on all of the allied health programs offered at Wiregrass, visit the website www.wiregrass.edu.

This article was written by Brittany D. McClure for the Valdosta Daily Times Health Matters monthly magazine December 2012 issue and is reprinted here by permission.