National Allied Health Week is an annual opportunity to celebrate the large group of health professionals who use scientific principles and evidence-based practice for the diagnosis, evaluation and treatment of acute and chronic diseases; promote disease prevention and wellness for optimum health; and apply administration and management skills to support health care systems in a variety of settings.
The Department of Allied Health Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill is comprised of seven divisions and five centers, programs and units. Its mission is to improve the health and wellbeing of all people of North Carolina, the nation, and globally through exemplary and culturally sensitive teaching, innovative research, and person-centered care.
“In the past five years or so, there has been a renaissance of many of the allied health disciplines, and others, coming together in the name of patient care,” said Stephen Hooper, PhD, Associate Dean and Chair of the Department of Allied Health Sciences. “This has translated into new and innovative educational and clinical training practices that have begun to change how we approach our training for these disciplines.”
Changes and Growth Within Allied Health Practice Areas
According to Nancy Bagatell, PhD, Director of the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy and Associate Professor, broad social justice issues are starting new conversations within allied health professions.
“Within occupational therapy, there is a deepening awareness of the importance of a diverse workforce and issues of justice and equity,” said Bagatell. “There is also a growing number of aging adults living in the community and a rise in the number of autistic people becoming adults, which highlights the need for future practitioners to address community participation needs.”
Director of the Division of Radiologic Science and Associate Professor Joy Renner, MA, RT(R), recognizes changes in the general patient population that directly affect the need for well-trained allied health professionals.
“There is a growing patient population with complex healthcare issues, and all of them must begin with the diagnosis,” said Renner. “Medical imaging is an integral part of the diagnostic process, and there is a growing need for medical imaging professionals to ensure patients have access to imaging and subsequent treatment in a timely manner.”
Tangible and Intangible Skills for Allied Health Professionals
Hooper, Bagatell and Renner all agree that tangible, clinical-based skills are extremely important for students to master during their time in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. However, they each emphasize intangible skills and values that are just as critical to graduate success as they enter the workforce as allied health professionals.
“One of the most important values that students in DAHS derive from their educational experiences is the importance of service,” said Hooper. “The department works within our main objective to serve the North Carolina public well, and the value of service has been and continues to be one of the most self-enduring values that our students will acquire. Quite frankly, most of our student arrive to our programs with this sense of service as they pursue their chosen health profession, and this value continues to be sharpened during the course of their allied health education.”
Bagatell adds that students should leave their time at UNC knowing how to think critically, solve problems and continue learning throughout their careers. “They need to know how to find resources and how to evaluate them,” she said. “It’s also critical that students have an awareness of power dynamics, systemic injustices, implicit bias and health/education disparities, especially in the realm of occupational science and occupational therapy.”
Renner echoes the sentiment that active and self-directed learning is key in allied health professions, specifically radiologic science fields.
“In addition to providing the safest and highest quality imaging services possible, graduates need to have the background to communicate critical instructions and gather essential patient assessment information from wide ranging patient populations, especially as science and technology continue pushing medical imaging forward at a rapid pace,” she said.
Interprofessional Education and Practice is the Future of Allied Health
The Department of Allied Health Sciences and allied health professionals have led the way in interprofessional education and practice (IPEP) for decades. However, Hooper notes that IPEP experiences on UNC’s campus are growing significantly each year.
“Faculty are getting more involved and students within our programs and across campus are becoming more active and expectant of interprofessional experiences,” he said. “I have witnessed this educational and clinical perspective grow over the past five years, resulting in our Department and the University both receiving national recognition for a range of IPEP endeavors. I believe we will continue to evolve over the next decade and IPEP efforts will contribute to our national rankings across programs.”
According to Hooper, IPEP activities within the Department have improved educational training, clinical experiences and, ultimately, resulted in better health outcomes for communities across the state.
As the Department of Allied Health Sciences celebrates its students, faculty, clinicians and graduates during Allied Health Week, it continues to look ahead to furthering its mission of teaching, research and service for the betterment of North Carolina and beyond.