09/12/2012 11:44 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

A Two-Word Mantra for Adapting to Changing Healthcare Landscape

As a Baby Boomer who has worked in the healthcare industry for more than 25 years, I'm familiar with the vast demographic shift that will dramatically impact America's healthcare system in the coming decades. And as the president of a college specializing in health sciences and nursing training, I'm also familiar with how our workforce and educational system must evolve to deliver adequate care to the growing ranks of retirees.

This demographic and workforce trend, unlike any other in U.S. history, poses a challenge -- and an opportunity -- to America's higher educational system. Colleges and universities must adapt their health science programs to industry needs and graduate specialists with the soft skills employers seek. Many are already adapting, including the college I lead, Malcolm X College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. Through our College to Careers program, launched by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chancellor Cheryl Hyman in December of last year, we are better aligning our programs to meet the needs of a changing healthcare industry, and are ensuring that our students are prepared to succeed in 21st century healthcare careers.

So what does it look like to adapt? Two words: collaborate and invest.

Collaborate. Healthcare technology and patient demands are constantly changing. To ensure our offerings remain relevant, we have enlisted the expertise of industry partners. Our faculty members have begun working directly with industry partners -- including Rush University Medical Center, Advocate Healthcare Systems, University of Illinois at Chicago and Stroger Hospital -- to update and create curricula that better aligns with industry demand. It ultimately allows us to close the healthcare skills gap.

During the 2012-13 academic year we are launching or enhancing medical billing and coding, physical therapy assistant and community health worker programs; jobs in these specialized areas are projected to grow over the next decade. For example, Accretive Healthcare is working with faculty to design a new health information technology advanced certificate program planned for launch later this year. We also will update and/or expand our dental hygiene, EMT paramedic, pharmacy tech, and occupational therapy assistant programs, among others, by fall 2013.

We know the healthcare industry is trending toward requiring more education in many career areas, so every credential we award must lead to further education and professional advancement, whether at City Colleges or beyond. That's why we're designing curricula around the concept of "stackable credentials." All of our healthcare programs are being built upon the foundation of a common core curriculum, which will offer students a strong background in healthcare skills and will provide multiple entry points to multiple healthcare pathways.

We also recently signed an agreement with the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Nursing to allow our eligible nursing associate's degree program graduates to be automatically enrolled in that nationally ranked school's online bachelor of nursing (BSN) program. BSNs are increasingly essential for success in the nursing field.

In addition to their work with faculty around curriculum, industry partners are playing critical roles in strengthening our students' education by offering clinical rotations, giving guest lectures, and providing unique opportunities to apply for internships and jobs.

Invest. To be prepared for the in-demand healthcare jobs of today and tomorrow, students need more than up-to-date curricula taught by knowledgeable practitioners. They need to be trained at cutting-edge facilities containing equipment they'll use at their first job out of school.

That's the value Malcolm X College's new $251 million campus will deliver. The health sciences component of the campus will look and feel like a healthcare facility. It will feature a virtual patient care setting, offering students simulated experiences that are all too rare in healthcare education. To ensure the new health sciences center is aligned to industry needs, City Colleges will engage with our College to Careers partners throughout the design process.

When our graduates -- some of whom will have done clinical rotations in our partners' hospitals -- leave our college, they will be better equipped to meet the demands of a dynamic workplace, and industry.

Technology and advancements in medical knowledge have been driving changes in our healthcare system for generations; in the next few decades, demographics will be a key change-maker as well. Those of us in the healthcare profession, whether educators or healthcare professionals, must collaborate and invest in order to ensure that we remain relevant and keep up with the changing American landscape. Our ability to provide quality care depends on it.