When you pull into Walterboro, South Carolina, it’s tough not to notice that you’re in a small town. There’s a humble but beautiful downtown that looks like it’s out of a bygone era, while around it there’s a sense of unhurried coziness to the surrounding businesses, with a distinct blend of local pride and economic perseverance.
And while communities like this face many challenges in an era where economic growth is centered on urban areas, there’s also opportunities that abound in a place where everybody knows each other.
It’s that kind of tight-knit intimacy that has led to a kind of healthcare workforce pipeline between Colleton County High School, USC Salkehatchie, and Colleton Medical Center, all of which work together to provide opportunities for students and create a natural conduit for future healthcare careers in their community.
The high school, which boasts a student body population of just over 1,600 kids, has over the last few years begun operating it’s “Cougar New Tech” program, where students can select business entrepreneur or healthcare tracks that place them in progressive learning environments that use technology, group projects, and professional work environments while gearing them towards specific careers. Courses are taught by teacher pairs who use innovative lesson plans that stick to standards-based learning outcomes while also crafting projects that are relevant to learners’ lives and interests.
For the healthcare track, the high school works with both Colleton Medical Center and the Lowcountry Area Health Education Center (AHEC) to provide a robust curriculum that exposes students to the wide variety of career opportunities in the healthcare field. AHEC’s own online and interactive class modules and education coordinators provide specific instruction in soft skills and basic healthcare professional topics as part of the curriculum, and the Center also works with a variety of partners, including Colleton Medical Center, to bring healthcare professionals into the classroom and to get students firsthand experience in healthcare facilities.
The new program is a natural fit for the sprawling high school, which uses its wide hallways and gathering spaces along with its clustered seating model to provide a fundamentally different kind of classroom experience for its students, who are being engaged in ways that simply aren’t possible in the traditional teaching model.
Cougar New Tech continues to grow and will eventually encompass the entire school. It’s already proven to be a demonstrable success, with graduate rates improving from 68 percent in 2011 to 86 percent in 2016. Students on the healthcare track also get the advantage of gaining first-hand work experience in the hospital at Colleton Medical Center, where they receive training and get course credit for their work. Many of these students earn CNAs, or Certified Nursing Assistant licenses, before they even graduate high school.
From there, Cougar New Tech graduates in the healthcare track can go to college just a few miles down the road at USC Salkehatchie, a regional campus of the University of South Carolina. While the satellite campus can often come across as quaint given its humble size—it’s student population is actually a bit smaller than the high school, and it exists in the sprawling shadow of the flagship’s footprint in the capital of the state—again opportunities abound thanks to the small-town environs.
For instance, when you step into the nursing building on campus, the pleasantly provincial atmosphere slips away as a modern 21st-century learning environment takes over. The main teaching area feels a bit like a cozily retrofitted warehouse, with warm, muted natural light from high windows bathing a sizable space that features hospital beds lining either wall and a computer-loaded classroom space set up on the far end of the building. On the other side, away from the instruction space, are a set of offices and a sleek simulation lab that illustrates the seriousness and standards of the school’s nursing program.
Constructed over the course of last year, the state-of-the-art lab features life-like mannequins and a facsimile hospital room as well as a control room where an instructor can give voice to the patient, score a nurse’s care, and create and alter a comprehensive variety of different scenarios that help prepare nurses for what real caregiving will be like.
“It really gets your adrenaline going,” says Ali Reeves, a 4th-year student in the school’s nursing program.
And she’s right—you can tell from the look of concentration of a student’s face when they enter the lab that the process requires little to suspend disbelief. The student-nurse interacts with the “patient” just as they would a real one, asking questions and engaging in a conversation with the mannequin about their health while checking vitals and responding to their needs. In the control room, the instructor is carefully following a script that leads the patient’s condition forward naturally to simulate a real-life event.
And the simulation lab provides more than a simple assessment of procedures. Halfway through one patient visit, for instance, the instructor in the control room sends the patient into a cardiac arrest which leads Reeves’ classmate, Taylor Williams—who not quite coincidentally earned her CNA at Colleton County High School—alerts her team of the "crash," which sends two other student-nurses rushing in to assist with resuscitating the patient. The swiftness of the movement and the clear physical exertion required to keep a heart beating—the mannequin provides the appropriate level of resistance to mimic the strength of a human chest—is a bit uncanny, as Williams wipes steady beads of sweat from her brow after pumping for a few minutes. Eventually, she taps in one of her fellow nurses to ensure that the required pressure and 100 beats per minute requirement to keep the heart pumping is maintained.
Having the simulation lab, which USC Salkehatchie acquired by assembling a host of financial resources, including grant money and assistance from Colleton Medical Center, means that their students no longer need to make the nearly four-hour round-trip to use the training equipment at the Columbia campus nor feel the pressure to leave the region to receive their nursing education. And in addition to the practical and logistical advantages of having their own simulation lab, it also projects a kind of professional confidence and psychological assurance that Colleton County students can get the very best education right here at home rather than going away to school. These students also, of course, have the hospital just down the road to do clinical rounds at too.
The new simulation lab, and the nursing program itself, have proven to be a boon for the Colleton Medical Center and Allendale County Hospital since the program began in 2006. With support from the two hospitals as well the Duke Endowment, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation, the Fullerton Foundation and the Sister of Charity, USC Salkehatchie has now graduated 90 nurses, the majority of which remain in the tri-county service area and three out of four of whom have stayed in South Carolina. Colleton Medical Center estimates that it hires anywhere from 25-60% of these students each year, providing a valuable conduit for positions that are often difficult to recruit
This is exactly the kind of educational intervention rural healthcare providers like Colleton Medical Center need to ensure a healthy, productive workforce in today’s competitive employment environment.