Before Deborah Hallas made her decision about the type of education she would pursue when she heads back to school this fall, she did her homework first.
Hallas, a 58-year-old Columbia Falls resident, looked around the Flathead Valley for indications of future opportunities, and recognized an expanding medical community.
Not wanting to spend four or more years in school to become a nurse, Hallas checked out what Flathead Valley Community College had to offer.
She found that her pre-registration job analysis coincided with five new programs that FVCC will offer this fall semester, including Hallas’ choice – earning a patient relations specialist certificate.
“I was just hoping that getting into this there would be more opportunity,” Hallas said. “Any more, if you don’t have a certification, the jobs just aren’t there. They want to know you’ve gone to school for this.”
That’s exactly the reason Brenda Rudolph, FVCC business division chair and faculty member, worked to revamp the college’s medical administrative assistant program. According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, employment in medical office professions is projected to grow 16.9 percent in the next seven years.
During a semester-long sabbatical in 2009, Rudolph looked around the valley to identify the program’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what the medical community will want in future employees. What she found was a need for more professionalism, more leadership and more decision-making skills.
After a year of working through the system, Rudolph developed three new programs: the patient relations specialist certificate program; a two-year associate of applied science degree in health care office management; and a program to become a healthcare information technology (HIT) implementation and maintenance specialist.
The HIT program coincides with the federal government’s push toward digital medical records, Rudolph said.
“There’s a lot of work in how to get it safely, how to get all the info there, how to get it logged in,” she said.
The HIT program is also a cooperative effort between the faculties at FVCC, Montana Tech, University of Montana-Helena College of Technology and Montana State University-Great Falls College of Technology.
Each school has taken a piece of the program and will share its teachers, programs, courses and costs.
Part of the medical administrative assistant program revamp also included helping students overcome the typical roadblocks – such as rusty math skills – they can face when returning to school after a long period of time away, Rudolph said.
FVCC is also adding a two-year associate of science degree program in biotechnology, which will prepare the students to transfer to the Montana State University program in Bozeman.
Biotechnology incorporates DNA technologies to develop new products and solve problems in various fields, including agriculture and veterinary science.
FVCC biology faculty member Ruth Wrightsman said the new program will prepare students for the growing industry, not only in larger cities on the East and West coasts, but also in Montana.
Wrightsman said she found about 50 biotechnology companies in Montana while developing the new program.
“I started researching and I thought, ‘Wow, there’s some employment out there for people,’” Wrightsman said.
Currently, Bozeman and Hamilton are hot spots for the industry, Wrightsman said, but it is a rapidly growing field because it can be done anywhere with an airport, a computer and courier services.
The new FVCC program is funded partially through funds from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program, Wrightsman said.
The biotechnology program is challenging, but it is one way that a biology major can find gainful employment with a four-year degree, instead of going to medical or graduate school.
Wrightsman said she is interested in building the program and making connections with the biotechnology community in Montana.
The fifth program FVCC will add this fall semester is a two-year associate of applied science degree in emergency management. According to the college, students will learn about emergency management, hazard mitigation and preparedness and emergency management law and ethics.
The degree should be useful for those interested in jobs in fire service, emergency management services, emergency communications operators, hospital personnel, business safety personnel, municipal government planners, security personnel and risk managers, the college noted.
Registration for the FVCC fall semester is on Aug. 25 and Aug. 26, with classes scheduled to begin Aug. 29.
Hallas, who said she would take 15 credits this semester, is ready to be on campus again, but can’t help having some first-day jitters.
“I’m real nervous; I haven’t done this for 30 years,” she said. “It’ll keep me thinking. It’s just one more way of keeping you active in some way or another.”
For more information on Flathead Valley Community College, visit www.fvcc.edu or call 406-756-3847.
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