By Dennis Joslin, PhD
President and CEO of Nebraska Methodist College
Who’s tired of talking about the Affordable Care Act (less affectionately known as Obamacare)? Not me. That’s because for healthcare educators, the discussion should be just beginning. Now that the debates have finished on Capitol Hill and the bugs are getting worked out of Healthcare.gov, the conversation should now focus on moving forward.
And that’s where healthcare educators come into play.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is changing healthcare on a fundamental level, affecting how insurance companies provide coverage, how care providers like hospitals and clinics operate, and how everyday consumers navigate the system. But what can’t be ignored is the role healthcare educators have in meeting the needs of tomorrow’s industry. As healthcare educators, we need to proactively work to identify and address industry demands resulting from the new law, and we need to be ready to prepare students for the new realities in healthcare.
One of the most important aspects of the new law is access to healthcare — access by those with pre-existing conditions and those who previously could not afford coverage. Now, millions of Americans have health insurance who didn’t before, giving them access for the first time to healthcare services. As many healthcare experts will tell you, that presents a major challenge because the healthcare industry is already dealing with shortages of doctors, nurses and health professionals in other disciplines. At the same time, the baby boomer population is aging, which is forecasted to increase demand for healthcare services in the next decade.
This is where we as health professions colleges and universities have a responsibility to respond to the demands of the healthcare industry. Colleges and universities can’t sit back and be content with their current healthcare offerings. Even though the ACA has opened the door to accessible healthcare, we haven’t solved the issue if enough healthcare providers aren’t available. Instead, we need to continue researching the needs of the industry and working to add and expand programs to meet those demands.
At our institution, Nebraska Methodist College, one example of this is our recently-added Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program. We added the program because we saw a void in primary care providers in Nebraska and the region, especially in rural areas. Primary care providers are crucial in detecting illnesses and diseases in patients at early stages when care is both more effective and less costly. We found rural areas of the state are having a difficult time recruiting physicians; however, those roles can be filled by DNP-prepared family nurses practitioners. We felt that this type of education and skill set was really needed most in our state and aligned best with the ACA’s focus on preventative care.
Preparing more healthcare professionals is only half of the challenge. Health professions institutions need to work to place individuals in jobs and locations where they are needed most and can be successful. This means utilizing the networks of your health system, faculty and alumni to connect students to those careers. For instance, at Nebraska Methodist College, we have a rural health advisory committee that we work with in planning our curriculum. Many of those advisory members are willing to have students precept in their communities as part of their clinical experience. Those opportunities prepare students for what they will actually experience in that rural environment and can often lead to jobs.
In addition, healthcare educators need to accept the challenge from the ACA to improve care. Graduates should be prepared to provide care using the best evidence-based practices for each respective discipline. They also should be prepared with skills to engage patients in the care they are receiving and educate communities about prevalent health issues.
Lastly, graduates should recognize their role in helping their patients understand the ACA. For the average patient, the law can be very confusing, and health professionals should encourage patients to be informed healthcare consumers. While each one of us may not have all the answers, we can direct patients to the right resources where they can find the information they need.