The University of Montana received three applications for its master’s in public health by the priority deadline in January last year. This year, UM got 22 applications by the early deadline, and it’s anticipating more before March 1.
“We’ve never had an influx of (MPH applications) like this,” said Tony Ward, chairman of UM’s School of Public and Community Health Sciences, of the 2021 summer and fall submissions. “It will be really interesting to see how many students start our (master’s) program by fall.”
At Montana State University–Billings, the number of nurses entering the RN to BSN program jumped 14.8 percent this academic year, said Becky Anglin, chair of the Health Care Services Department.
“The pandemic has definitely showed us that our frontline workers are crucial, and those staff that are even behind the scenes, such as health administrators, are crucial workers as well,” Anglin said.
In December, the American Medical Association reported a nearly 20 percent increase in the number of medical school applications, a trend some admissions officers dubbed “the Fauci effect.” A scientist, physician and infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci garnered near celebrity status after his briefings to the nation about COVID-19. Last May, he addressed the medical class of 2020.
“Now, more than ever, we need your talent, your energy, your resolve, and your character,” Fauci said.
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the global economy, thrown more people into poverty, and killed 441,000 in the United States alone. In Montana, 1,234 people have died. Before being sidelined by former President Donald Trump later in the year, Fauci addressed the death toll in his talk to the graduates.
“A staggering number of lives have been lost in just a few months, and the road to some form of normality will be neither fast nor easy,” Fauci said in the spring. “I am confident, however, that you will be the vanguard to overcome this challenge.”
The crisis that has infused every aspect of people’s daily lives also has turned the public’s attention to health and health care. In Montana, the apparent surge in interest in related fields may be partly inspired by Fauci — and even some of the backlash against him — but it also is connected to other trends.
Anglin, at MSUB, said the RN-to-BSN program started four years ago with a cohort of 15, and it currently counts 37 students. A national initiative to drive the number of bedside nurses who are BSN-prepared to 80 percent by 2020 may have contributed to the uptick in Billings.
“Now, obviously, 2020 took its own turn, to put it mildly,” Anglin said. But she said the pandemic has shown nurses the importance of the research that supports the care they provide.
“If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s being able to understand the research being thrown at us is so incredibly crucial,” Anglin said.
She also said baby boomers working in public health and health care will be retiring, and national shortages are projected. Burnout rates are high because of the pandemic too.
“We’re already having a shortage. If ‘the Fauci effect’ can help fill those gaps, I think it’s a positive thing,” Anglin said.
An analysis by Nightingale College estimates nursing supply in 2030 will outpace demand in Montana by 200 nurses, but that doesn’t mean the state won’t face challenges. “Even in the states where the supply outranks the demand, severe shortages are still common, specifically in the rural areas and smaller towns,” said the May 2020 overview from Nightingale.
Not every health-related program has seen a boost this year. Anglin said the bachelor’s in health administration at MSUB has maintained steady enrollment. Rob Stenger, director for the UM Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana program, said their applicant pool is limited to medical students in their fourth year, or those who enrolled in med school in 2017, so their numbers are steady as well.
“We are in the midst of our recruiting season now for our class of residents who will start this summer,” Stenger said in an email. “We have lots of interest from medical students who are interested in future rural and underserved practice in Montana, but volume is very similar to prior years.”
Lily Apedaile, who oversees the Griz Health program at UM, said the health care industry is among the top employers in the state, yet there’s a workforce shortage. In her role, she shares with students the variety of careers they can pursue in the health professions, from radiology technology to even medical illustration.
“There’s really something for everyone in the health professions,” Apedaile said.
Griz Health started to give students an opportunity to help the campus respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and she said roughly 60 students, from freshmen to graduate level students, have participated to some degree. She characterized the interest, with 25 to 30 regulars, as “an overwhelming response.”
“We actually right now are working on what Griz Health would look like after the pandemic,” Apedaile said. For example, she said it may offer experiential learning opportunities for students in the health professions.
Wyatt Ploot, a freshman honors student who started at UM last fall, has wanted to be in the medical field since high school, well before the pandemic. His father is a podiatrist in Kalispell and owns his own clinic, and Ploot has been around medicine his whole life.
But the student majoring in biology with an emphasis on human sciences said the pandemic has influenced his thinking. For one, he said the mental health toll from the pandemic is real, and he wants people to understand the weight it carries.
“Never be afraid to reach out and ask for help,” Ploot said. “That is something I would like other people to know. I think mental health has been overshadowed.”
During the last year, he also has seen the ways health care providers can have a positive impact on the world. He himself would like to help people possibly through orthopedics or plastic reconstructive surgery for trauma victims.
“It’s cemented even more my decision to go into health care,” Ploot said.
As for “the Fauci effect,” he’s hoping to hear more from the infectious disease expert under President Joe Biden. Trump had criticized Fauci, but the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is back at the microphone in the White House. Fauci will also deliver via Zoom the Mansfield Lecture for UM on Feb. 17.
The interest in public health and health care careers comes despite significant political backlash against those professionals — in some cases possibly because of it. Nine public health department leaders have resigned in Montana this year, and all of the Pondera County health workers quit.
“People are just under assault, through emails or nasty phone calls. There’s protesters outside some health department officials’ homes,” Ward said.
But the interest in those careers is coming partly from people who feel compelled to work against that current, Ward said: “They want to feel empowered to do something, so I think that’s why some of them are coming back to school.”
In fall 2020, UM started an undergraduate degree in public health, a program that had been in the works for two years. Ward, who said the master’s in public health was growing dramatically even before the pandemic, believes the coronavirus outbreak will only serve to accelerate the expansion. He said he hopes Fauci can help bring science to the fore again too.
“Now with Dr. Fauci being able to talk science, finally, and not be muzzled, I think that will only draw attention to how science will be used to influence policy and drive mitigation,” Ward said.