Illinois Rural Health Association encourages entrance into associate degree-level health careers


Maddie McCarthy


The Illinois Rural Health Association (IRHA) held a webinar last week highlighting different in-demand health careers that require an associate degree.

Margaret Vaughn, executive director of IRHA, said the association wanted to inform young students and people looking for a career change of the wide variety of healthcare jobs they can pursue.

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“Everyone knows just from growing up, you can be a doctor, you can be a nurse, but sometimes you’re not on that track and you really don’t think there is a place for you in the healthcare arena,” Vaughn said. “But there is. There are a lot of jobs you probably don’t even know exist.”

Five panelists spoke about their professions, many of whom had different life and career paths before pursuing these jobs.

Certified Surgical Technologist 

Jennifer Jordan, from the Southern Illinois Collegiate Common Market, discussed certified surgical technologists (CSTs). She said oftentimes, people have not heard about CSTs or do not know what they do because they work behind the scenes in an operating room.

The job of a CST begins before a patient gets to the hospital. They prepare the operating rooms and pull the proper items for the procedure. During the procedure, they work closely beside the surgeon and other medical personnel. After the procedure, they help clean up the operating room and prepare it for the next surgery.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh you just stand and pass instruments,’ but it goes way further than that,” Jordan said. “We have to have a good idea of the body anatomy, and then we also have to know the instrumentation and be steps ahead of the surgeon so we have to know the procedure so we can anticipate the instrumentation that the surgeon is going to need.”

Jordan said there might be a little bit of conversing with the surgeon, because they cannot always see the surgery site, but they want to keep the voice exchange to a minimum so the procedure rolls along and the patient doesn’t spend too much time under anesthesia.

Those considering becoming a CST should have a strong stomach, Jordan said, because of what they might see and smell in the operating room.

Radiology Technician

Terri Little, a CT and X-ray technologist with Southern Illinois Healthcare, discussed the different healthcare imaging careers people can enter. Their first step is to receive an associate degree to become an X-ray technician, which involves more than just taking pictures of broken bones, Little said.

“We do not only just take pictures of broken bones, but we do something called fluoroscopy,” she said. “That is where we give people different types of medicine and we can see things going on with the (gastrointestinal) tract, watch you swallow, [etc.].”

They also do imaging that involves medication injections into an area like the shoulder before an X-ray so they can see tears or any other type of injury.

After they get their associate degree, an X-ray technician can specialize in other types of imaging. They may also be called to do imaging for surgery cases, pain cases, urology cases, and more.

Registered Health Info Technician

Rose Thorton, a registered health information technician (RHIT) with Pinckneyville Hospital, said the health information management field is a hub for healthcare systems.

“Health information management is the practice of acquiring, analyzing, and protecting digital and traditional medical information vital to providing quality patient care,” she said. “It is a combination of business, science, and information technology.”

RHITs can work in a variety of settings including hospitals, clinics, behavioral health spaces, governmental agencies, long-term care facilities, and more.

They have to work closely with providers in order to properly code diagnoses to a patient, and they must be knowledgeable about laws pertaining to the release of information and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Medical Lab Technician

Sheridan Voshake, a medical laboratory scientist and laboratory supervisor at Memorial Hospital, discussed medical laboratory technicians (MLTs). She said MLTs are the associate degree equivalent of a lab technician.

“[MLTs] operate advanced lab analyzers,” Voshake said. “[We] test blood, urine, [and] all types of body fluids. We identify different diseases and different disorders that a patient may have. We also do things such as matching blood types, and finding out your antibiotic sensitivities, so we can perform a culture from a wound and figure out which antibiotic the pharmacy should prescribe for you.”

Voshake said 70 percent of medical decisions made about a patient’s healthcare are based on lab results, so it is important that MLTs are performing accurate lab tests and producing accurate results. People who want to work in healthcare but do not desire the patient-facing aspect of the industry may be interested in becoming an MLT.

“You’re still caring for your patients but just behind the scenes in a more science-based way,” Voshake said.

She also noted that most facilities want MLTs to be board-certified, which they can do after they receive their associate degree.

Respiratory Therapist 

Lexie Caraway, a respiratory therapist (RT) with Clay County Hospital, said RTs provide a vital service to healthcare systems.

“When people think of respiratory therapy, a lot of times they think that maybe we just do nebulizers or inhalers, which we do,” Caraway said. “But we do many other things, such as titrating their oxygen, getting them qualified for home oxygen.”

RTs also draw blood, initiate CPAPs and BIPAPs, and run ventilators, ensuring all the settings are correct and the mouthpiece is fitting properly.

The daily schedule of an RT can vary widely, because they have scheduled treatment times, but are also available for emergencies. 

“Anytime there is an emergency cesarean section, anytime there is a rapid-response or a code, or a bad automobile accident, we’re always involved in those things,” Caraway said.

Caraway said RTs can work in more places than just hospitals, including nursing homes, with transport teams, as a home care RT, or in pulmonary rehabilitation. 

Community Health Worker 

Claire Hughes, a community health worker (CHW) who is with Southern Illinois University, said the CHW profession is often unknown or misunderstood.

“To explain it in the most simple terms, [CHWs] are a healthcare or social service professional that acts like a guide or a link between patients, healthcare providers, and social services,” Hughes said.

A lot of work they do includes identifying barriers their patients face in getting the healthcare they need. This could mean helping patients find transportation, medical insurance, food stamps, or child care.

Hughes said there is a lot of versatility as to where a CHW can work and who they can work with. CHWs might work one-on-one with patients, or they may be able to work in a group setting educating patients on a variety of health-related topics.

Aspiring CHWs currently need a high school diploma and CHW training, though Hughes said employers will often hire people without training and provide that on the job. However, Illinois is working towards a state-wide certification process for all CHWs to follow.

Hughes said the certification program will begin in late 2024 or early 2025. Once it is rolled out, CHWs will be required to have 150 hours classroom coursework and 2,000 hours of training in the field.

Readers can learn more about Illinois’ healthcare workforce at the 2024 Illinois State of Reform Health Policy Conference at the Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park on May 29. Those Interested can register for the event here.

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