Nurturing the Future

UCM Provides Critical Talent for the Changing Face of Health Care

By Ruth Dickson

UCM Magazine Health PT

These days it’s hard to open a magazine, website or Instagram feed without being exposed to a new strategy, product or lifestyle recommendation geared toward making you feel healthier, stronger and more in control of your physical and emotional well-being. From apps that measure and treat your mental health to workplace fitness programs, people have never been more conscious of their own wellness. With such a spotlight on wellness, many employers are relying on institutions like UCM to help answer the looming question of how to produce fresh workforce talent geared toward these new industries.

A catalyst for this change can be traced back to the recession that many businesses faced in the late 2000s. As businesses struggled with poor profits, and looked for ways to streamline operations, many sought to lower health insurance costs for employee plans. A solution to this problem was to improve the physical and mental health of their employees, thereby reducing the amount the company had to pay for health-related procedures and premiums. Employers started to offer wellness benefits, including gym memberships, fitness challenges and — in recent years — free wearable technology to assist with self-motivation.

But this societal shift toward wellness is not owed purely to a corporate bottom line. Another contributing factor is that the mindset of younger generations entering the workforce is different from that of generations preceding them.

“They don’t want the same workplaces that their parents and grandparents had,” explains Karen Doyle, ’92, program coordinator of health studies at UCM. “They don’t want the same health problems either.”

Indeed, many Millennial and Generation Z professionals have witnessed family members experience stress-related health problems and are keen to avoid treading this same path. This expectation for increased awareness and focus on health can be credited for evolving workforce and personal wellness initiatives in the past decade.

 

Corporate Fitness and Wellness

One increasingly common professional initiative is corporate fitness and wellness. Employers seeking to help their employees stay active during the workday may hire full-time professionals to develop customized dietary or fitness programs and advise executives on easy-to-implement strategies to ensure that wellness is a priority in the workplace.

The appeal of corporate fitness as a career is that it provides these professionals with a fixed clientele for a sustained period, meaning they can see real results and make a tangible difference in a specific community — something that appeals to the altruistic spirit of Generation Z. At UCM, corporate fitness is an area of study under the popular kinesiology discipline, which provides many different career paths focused on wellness and healing through movement.

UCM Magazine Health Treadmill

Matthew Garver, program coordinator for the university’s Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology, says the demand for the program is high, which shouldn’t be surprising.

“Wellness is about trying to change behaviors proactively, so that we don’t have to intervene reactively,” Garver says.

Many young professionals grew up amid the epidemic of obesity in the youth demographic and witnessed their childhood peers facing chronic diseases. A 2001 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Surgeon General’s report presented data from 1999 indicating that the percentage of adolescents who were overweight had nearly tripled (from 5 to 14 percent) in two decades. Doyle and Garver agree that this and other changes impacting the infrastructure of community health have created a real need for evolved programs to combat the crisis.

“We are preparing our majors to change communities, cultures and environments to reflect healthier lifestyles.

“Our students are studying behaviors, policies, infrastructures and systems that need to be designed or improved to create healthier communities,” Doyle says of the rapidly growing health studies program at UCM. “As a profession, we are changing more than individuals, but also populations. We are about prevention of disease, illness and injury through changing lifestyle behaviors.”

 

Mental and Behavioral Health

As national and international awareness grows in regard to physical wellness, a similar spotlight is being cast on mental and behavioral health. UCM is adjusting the instructional design of some of its most tenured programs to meet the demand.

Psychology, a well-established program at the university since the 1960s, is well versed in adapting its demanding curriculum to produce the qualifications most sought after in the industry. One growing career path for psychology graduates is behavior analysis and therapy, a profession that serves children with autism in both the education and medical fields, and one that often has more job openings than qualified candidates.

Recognizing the importance of career readiness, David Kreiner, chair of the School of Nutrition, Kinesiology and Psychological Sciences, made sure when including behavior analysis in the psychology curriculum that students would be ready to take competitive certifications as soon as they graduate.

“Students can become Registered Behavioral Technicians when they are still in school,” Kreiner explains. “But we offer courses in behavior analysis so that students who complete all the requirements will be eligible to sit for the Board Certified Assistant Behavioral Analyst exam, and graduate students who complete our Master of Science in Behavior Analysis will be qualified to become a Board Certified Behavioral Analyst after passing the BCBA exam.”

By getting these credentials during college or soon after earning their degree, UCM graduates are able to be even more competitive against other job seekers in the health, wellness and medical fields.

The need to ensure new graduates are fully versed in emerging qualifications is also important in social work, another well-established field of study at UCM. With a long history of serving the mental and behavioral health communities, UCM’s social work faculty was keen to provide Mental Health First Aid — a national training program that teaches participants about mental health and substance abuse — as part of the undergraduate program. With the support of an Opportunity Grant provided through the UCM Alumni Foundation’s Central Annual Fund, two faculty members received the necessary training. A second-year grant then provided funding for student books and learning materials.

“Without the assistance of the foundation, this really wouldn’t have been a reality for us,” says Jean Nuernberger, chair of the School of Human Services. The impact of this gift is that every undergraduate student will now be able to receive this training in their junior year — something that really makes a difference for job seekers.

 

Innovative Medical Training

It is this commitment to postgraduate success that drives academic leaders at UCM to continue to develop pathways for students seeking careers in the thriving health, wellness and medical industries. Students can choose from an array of health- and wellness-related programs, as well as certificate programs and workforce development initiatives. They graduate ready to make real change, without incurring the high costs and lengthy time commitments of medical school. As such, streamlining the program while simultaneously delivering a competitive degree that readies students for immediate career success remains top of mind for academic leaders.

Scott Lankford, chair of UCM’s School of Natural Sciences, says the radiologic technology degree was developed as a four-year program so students were not limited by only receiving an associate degree or certificate.

UCM Magazine Health arteries

“They’re graduating with a four-year degree in biology with clinical experience,” he explains. “They can work immediately or apply to medical school; it really means they can pursue any career they want in the health care field.”

UCM’s commitment to serving the health, wellness and medical communities extends through all four colleges with evolving technologies and areas of study. In fact, UCM’s computer science graduates are likely to be highly employable within the medical field in the near future, thanks to a new focus on artificial intelligence. Having partnered with biology to create the first bioinformatics bachelor’s degree at a Missouri public institution, UCM’s computer science program recently welcomed Zhiguo Zhou, who has experience working closely with artificial intelligence in health care, or medical AI.

“All new graduates should have an understanding of the AI and coding thinking,” Zhou says. “They will need this in the future.”

To help facilitate this, Zhou has integrated artificial intelligence into the Computer Science Master of Science curriculum. Graduate students must complete a health care-based project in their first semester. This project, focused on identifying and then solving a problem in the health care industry using computer science, sets UCM graduates apart when they are seeking employment. It also means that they are equipped not just for the industry as it is when they graduate, but also for the industry as it will be in the future.

With an institution-wide commitment to providing future-focused programming and meeting new employer demands, the university is already producing graduates who are making a difference in the wellness industry. For students, the important thing is being able to help other people and make an impact quickly.

“I love that UCM has this program,” says Mitch Lawson, who is studying athletic training. “It allows me to get great experience with helping people as a personal trainer while I’m getting the skills I need to enter a medical-related field. I thought about med school, but by choosing UCM I can go on to become a physician assistant only a year after I get my graduate degree. So I’ll have less debt, and I’ll be able to help people sooner.”

Are you a UCM graduate working in an innovative medical field? We'd love to hear about your research and discoveries! Share your story at ucmmagazine@ucmo.edu.

 

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