Leaders use the phrase "workforce shortage" often as South Dakota sees low unemployment and a mismatch of skills with job openings. Local hospitals and clinics are not immune. One area health organizations is paying to train students for positions they can’t fill. In turn, students learn on-the-job during internships and commit to staying in town for a few years.
Laboratory Director Owen Bain opens what looks like a small refrigerator. It’s really an incubator, and Bain pulls a bright red petri dish from the warm climate specifically tailored to growing germs. Silvery gray blobs form a squiggly line.
"This would be an example of a sample from a urine sample, so all of these colonies growing on the plate represent the fact that this patient had a urinary tract infection and will need some antibiotics to get rid of that," Bain says.
Bain says culturing infections is a critical lab function at Huron Regional Medical Center.
Trained professionals must prepare samples and perform tests. Medical Center president and CEO David Dick says staffing those positions is not quick work.
"You just have to put in the effort now," Dick says. "The contribution’s made to that periodically, systematically over time. You can’t all of the sudden create a program like this."
Dick refers to a program that uses money from the HRMC Foundation’s Fund for the Future. The foundation covers between $5,500 and $32,000 for tech school or college training when students commit to working in an area of need for several years.
"It’s a way to give to the community as a whole, because – by having that person come back – they’re also an employee and a purchaser of services here," Dick says.
Dick says these students often have ties to Huron and want to stay, but they aren’t aware of the kinds of work they can perform. He likens the role of the health system to a familiar concept: parenting school-age kids.
"I delegated responsibility to the school, but I became accountable for their education in the sense that, if they didn’t get one, they’d probably live with mom and dad," Dick says. "If we’re short of a worker, have we put enough work into the high schools to let people know what kind of jobs are available, all the different varieties of health care jobs?"
One dozen of those positions at Huron Regional Medical Center are in the lab. Mitchell Tech student Greta Hinricher has her eye on one of them.
"I thought I wanted to be in nursing for the longest time, so, when I got to lab, that’s when it kind of clicked," Hinricher says.
Hinricher is now interning at the medical lab, sliding samples under the microscope and identifying health concerns.
"You’re looking at the white blood cells, and you have to count all of the different white blood cells. There’s neutrophils, there’s basophils, there’s eosinophils," Hinricher says. "What you’re also looking at is the red blood cells, the morphology, which is the shape, and you’re also looking at platelets and the size, so you’re not just glancing at it. You have to actually take a little bit of time and look through everything efficiently."
Lab director Owen Bain says a fully trained specialist checks Hinricher’s work.
"When they’re doing their internship here, they’re paired with an experienced laboratory professional, so they can see and compare their results, how they do things, and just following standard procedures every time they do a test," Bain says.
Bain says everyone doing everything the same way ensures that lab tests have integrity. The results are the basis for many medical decisions. He shows a sample of sputum; mucus someone coughed up is examined under magnification.
He describes an epithelial cell seen on the slide, which is large and contains a nucleus. Bain points out bacteria in the sample. They're round and in clusters of four, called tetrads. The bacteria are stained blue, which indicates to Bain that they are gram positive. He says the slide shows the patient likely had pneumonia.
The lab director says tests like that allow lab professionals to culture and confirm health problems, and it gives doctors evidence to treat people and save lives.
The medical lab in Huron includes 12 people. Bain says one of those positions has been open for a year. He says he thinks people miss out on the opportunity to contribute in a lab because the work isn’t high profile.
"We’re kind of behind-the-scenes, and the only time you see a laboratory person is maybe they’re going to draw your blood," Bain says. "We take the samples back to the laboratory and give the physician a result, so you never see us – or you see very little of us."
Bain says the Fund for the Future is helping people discover the value of lab work while maintaining ties in the community. He says the new hires help meet the demands of 24/7 health care.
The HRMC Foundation’s Fund for the Future targets areas of need in the health system. When those spots are secured, new scholarships sponsor other positions leaders have difficulty filling. Other high-need degrees include respiratory therapy, licensed practical nurses, and more. Find more details on the scholarship at this link.