Dominican University in River Forest launched their College of Health Sciences this year, which includes undergraduate degree programs in nutrition and dietetics, medical studies, and nursing, plus a new master’s degree program in physician assistant studies. The latter, university officials said, will begin enrolling students in early January.

In a statement, officials said the new college is “part of an ongoing effort to meet critical shortages of health care workers in Illinois and across the nation.” 

“We are committed to preparing many historically underrepresented practitioners in the health sciences, including women and minorities, to become exceptional, compassionate health care professionals in their communities,” said Dr. Dan Beach, the interim dean of the College of Health Sciences. 

“In addition, we are focused on helping first-generation college students pursue their dreams in the medical field,” he said.

In an interview last week, administrators in the new college explained there has been increased demand among incoming students to study health sciences. 

“The nursing major for undergraduates has been the [most popular program among incoming freshmen] for two or three years,” said Debra Gurney, executive director of nursing and chief nursing officer at Dominican.

“We just admitted our third cohort of students,” Gurney said. “We started out three years ago in the fall with 18 students and now we have a total, between the juniors and seniors, of 102 students in the pipeline.”

Dr. Richard “Sal” Salcido, founding director of physician assistant studies, said the demand for physician assistants (PA’s) — who are similar to general practice doctors and qualified to examine, diagnose and treat patients while being supervised by physicians — is rising, in part because of the program’s return on investment.

“I think probably about 98 percent of [PA’s] get jobs before they graduate and the average salary is over $90,000 a year,” said Salcido, adding that the two-year PA program, which costs about $88,000, is much less expensive and less time-consuming than becoming a full-blown doctor — which can take up to 14 years after medical school, internships and residencies are completed. 

According to the Association of Medical Colleges, the median four-year cost of medical school in the United States was nearly $280,000 for private schools and more than $200,000 for public schools.

“There’s not enough health care professionals to care for patients in the hospital and, of course, baby boomers are being admitted to the hospital in force,” said Gurney. “When we started, our mission was to provide the community with nurses because there’s a nursing shortage; then we extended [that mission] to the graduate level with the physician assistant program.”

Dominican officials said that the College of Health Sciences launch required a multiphase buildout of the university’s Palmer Hall, which now features simulation hospital rooms stocked with state-of-the-art 3-D anatomy tables and medical manikins that can replicate numerous functions of the human body — from breathing and bleeding to giving birth. 

In addition, Gurney and Salcido said, the new college experienced an infusion of personnel this year, with the nursing program going from two full-time faculty members when it began to six full-time faculty members and 15 part-time members. The new PA program has around five full-time and two part-time faculty members. 

Beach estimated that the additional capital and personnel costs for expanding, and launching, the nursing and PA programs were around $3 million to $4 million, with much of that paid for by private funding from donors. 

It’s an investment, university officials said, that will pay off in spades, considering the growth of the health care industry. By 2024, according to recent data published in Health Affairs, spending on health care could account for nearly one-fifth of the U.S. GDP. 

Salcido, who was recruited by Dominican from the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked on trying to attract more underrepresented minorities into health care fields. 

According to a study published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine, only 15 percent of the nearly 17,000 medical school graduates in 2012 were members of minority groups, including 7 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic.

“The medical profession in itself doesn’t really match the pluralistic society we live in,” Salcido said. “Only about 3 percent of Hispanics are able to get into PA schools. So, we made it a mission to recruit students who are minority, who are first to go to college and who are military veterans. We just filled our first class [of 30 students] and we have about 11 Mexican-American students who sailed right through the admissions process. We got about 14 who are the first to go to college.”

Among those students is 27-year-old Gabriela Velazquez, a graduate of College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and a native of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Velazquez, who is the first in her family to go to college, said she worked for several years before enrolling in Dominican’s PA program.

“As a PA, you have more time with patients and more patient interaction,” Velazquez said. “You can also move between different specialties pretty easily. That caught my attention. But the main reason I wanted to [pursue this field] was to give back to Pilsen, which is really underserved in the area of health care.” 

“We work so hard in building a program,” said Beach. “The culmination of that is actually seeing the faces of students when they get on campus. It wasn’t just the students; they brought family, too. They all remarked what a warm, accepting, supportive atmosphere they found here. There’s a lot of competition to get into these programs, but the competition is over now. The important thing is to get everybody across the goal line.”


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