GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey introduced students to potential careers in communication disorders, nursing, physical therapy and occupational therapy at a symposium last week on health professions in fields of study offered by the college.

Panelists from occupations in physical therapy, speech pathology and occupational therapy discussed some of the challenges they face in providing care under a changing health-insurance landscape.

Moderator Dr. Elaine Bukowski, of Egg Harbor Township, a professor of physical therapy at Stockton, asked the panelists about the importance of coordinating care with other doctors, nurses and specialists.

The school launched a new bachelor's degree program in health sciences last year. About 500 students enrolled in the program this year, she said.

"Inter-professional education is a big theme," she said. "Most students are preparing for graduate work in a health discipline. We're starting them at a young age in their professional careers to instill the need for that."

Meanwhile, health-care providers are under pressure from insurers to avoid redundant or superfluous treatments so specialties are getting narrower.

Panelist Christine Henshaw, an occupational therapist with Bacharach Institute of Rehabilitation, said she regularly works with case managers, nurses, psychologists and doctors to coordinate the care of her patients.

"We have meetings on patients weekly as needed for patient care. Without that communication between disciplines, we wouldn't be able to provide our patients with any significant treatment," she said.

The panelists' diverse professional backgrounds and employers showed how students today have ample opportunities to pursue careers in health care.

Bukowski said the popularity of the college's new health-sciences program no doubt has something to do with the improved likelihood of these graduates finding gainful employment.

"Graduates have multiple job offers within the state," she said.

Most health-care jobs are expected to be in higher-than-average demand nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' projections.

Most will be expanding employment by 20 percent or more over the next decade.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the lowest-paying jobs in the medical field are most abundant in health care. For example, there were 527,600 medical assistant jobs in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Demand for these jobs is expected to increase by 31 percent by 2020, adding another 162,900 jobs. These jobs typically do not require a college degree and pay $28,860 a year or about $14 per hour.

At the other end of the spectrum of health occupations that do not require a medical degree are jobs such as occupational therapist, which typically requires a graduate degree. Occupational therapists help patients recover or improve skills they need for daily life or work. There were 108,800 of these jobs in 2010, with projected growth of 33 percent or 36,400 more positions by 2020. The median salary in 2010 was $72,320 or $35 per hour.

Kerri Sowers, of Galloway Township, a physical therapist at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City, said many Stockton students will have their pick of health-care jobs.

"There is a lot of opportunity now," she said. "We all know what's going on with the Baby Boomer population. These jobs are going to be in high demand."

Geographically, these students are in close proximity to some of the nation's great medical facilities and universities in Philadelphia and New York. These institutes generate a lot of research, providing even more career possibilities.

Bukowski said many students who attend Stockton's programs are focused so much on fulfilling their coursework that they might miss some other opportunities around them. She advises them to take a broader view on their education to maximize their exposure to different career paths.

"It's good to broaden your horizons. Don't just put in the time but ask questions and see how people are interacting in different disciplines," she said. "You may find something else you like and fall in love with it."

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