A program that was not in existence earlier this year is now not only up and running, but students in the cardiovascular technology program at Arkansas Tech University's Ozark Campus are now in their second week of clinical rotations.
According to ATU-Ozark Chancellor Bruce Sikes, the idea for the cardiovascular technology program, which is housed at Chaffee Crossing in Fort Smith, all started with a call.
"This all started with a conversation with representatives from Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith," he said. "There was a distinct need for qualified and trained employees in the field of cardiovascular technology, specifically adult echocardiography."
Jennifer Thomas, Mercy's vice president of ancillary services, said her organization discovered the need for more trained employees in the field of adult echocardiography about two years ago when planning started for renovations to the hospital's cardiovascular center.
"When we started looking at expanding, it became clear that there was a shortage. We had a shortage that had been open for several months," she said. "Look (across) the city, there were five openings in the city itself. So there was a need to improve educational opportunities and attract cardiographers to the region."
While there was a need, Thomas said there were no programs in the state of Arkansas that specifically focused on adult echocardiography.
"This is the first program in the state dedicated just to echocardiography," she said. "There are programs where people who are going to school for radiography can get trained in all (the various) programs. But (with the cardiovascular technology program at ATU-Ozark), the individual can go to school for two years and get an associate's degree. Our goal by having the school here is to impact the need for echocardiographers in our state."
For individuals not familiar with the term echocardiography, ATU-Ozark Academic Clinical Coordinator Candace Harkreader said it is basically performing an ultrasound on the heart and being able to decipher what is displayed on the screen.
"The biggest thing with echocardiography is cardiologists want to know the size of the heart and check for CHS (congestive heart failure)," she said, adding that the primary task practitioners will perform in the field is checking to see "how well that heart functions, looking for valve leakage."
"It is similar to a general ultrasound," Harkreader elaborated. "You place some warm gel on the patient's chest, and it's a typical ultrasound except you're just focusing on the heart. There's nothing painful or invasive about it."
As for why the program is located at Chaffee Crossing instead of the school's primary campus in Ozark, Sikes said it has to do with his students receiving the best possible real world experience before attempting to enter the job market.
"It gave them the opportunity to do their clinical experiences in the Northwest Arkansas region," he said "We depend on our students being in clinicals in the western part of the state and in Little Rock. That site was available to us and close to regional hospitals."
The building, Harkreader said, was already in possession of ATU-Ozark and available for use. In addition, Mercy donated a used treadmill, three EKG machines and an ultrasound table following the renovation of its cardiovascular center in Fort Smith.
While some of the 20 students in the program this inaugural year could be considered a "traditional" student, Thomas said something unique about the program is that some of the students entered the program following layoffs from some regional manufacturers, including Whirlpool.
"One of the neat things is being able to pull this off so quickly, because ATU-Ozark already has other allied health programs. So when they got approval, they had people on campus who had already had their first year completed. There were individuals where people (laid off from) Whirlpool came back to learn new careers. With their timing and ATU's speed in providing this class, we were able to open the class to graduates immediately. Not just all young folks coming out of college, but folks embarking on their second careers."
Once students graduate in May and complete licensing tests and requirements, Sikes expects the students to fall in line with other allied health graduates of ATU-Ozark, who typically have a 90% placement with a job upon graduation.
And the pay could be enticing for more students to enter the program in future years, with Thomas estimating that new echocardiographers should expect an average starting salary of around $41,600 per year, depending on location.
And the field and the program through ATU-Ozark, she said, should continue to grow as baby boomers enter retirement.
"As our population continues to age, we'll need more echocardiographers."