LONG BEACH — Despite pleas from local hospital officials who are virtually gasping for respiratory therapists, Long Beach City College is considering suspending its training program because of declining enrollment.
LBCC administrators are considering dropping the therapist program this fall, although there are plans to reinstate it in 1989.
"There just aren't enough students (majoring in respiratory therapy)," said Kathryn Turner, the college's associate dean of occupational therapy. She said there are only nine students enrolled in the program.
While no one is certain why the enrollment drop has occurred at a time when therapist jobs are so abundant, experts say there are several possible explanations. Some students have a misdirected fear of contracting AIDS if they enter a health-related field. Others view the jobs as low-paying because they have traditionally been filled by women, and many women students are finding better, higher-paying jobs in non-health fields. The enrollment drop might also be related to what experts say is a general shortage of nurses.
Because each class of respiratory therapists at Long Beach City College gets its state funding based on the number of students, Turner said the college is losing "a lot of money" on the program. She said no specific figures on the program's financial cost are available.
Administrators from several local hospitals have been organizing to counteract the college's plans.
"(Closing the program) will be a disservice to the community by decreasing the work force in a vital field of medicine," said Mary Ann Walker, respiratory services director at Doctors Hospital of Lakewood, reading from a letter the group sent to the college. Walker continued: "Patient care may suffer and the health of respiratory patients may be jeopardized."
Walker said the hospital administrators will be meeting with Turner to see what can be done to save the program.
Respiratory therapists work at the direction of a doctor, carrying out tasks ranging from helping to resuscitate patients in cardiac arrest to conducting lung capacity tests on patients with asthma.
If a therapist is unavailable, the tasks have to be performed by a doctor or a registered nurse, taking time away from their duties.
Walker said she knows of 40 respiratory therapist openings at seven hospitals in the Long Beach area.
But the shortage is not confined to this region. Mike Thompson, president of the California Society of Respiratory Care, said that at least 1,000 more therapists are needed in the state. He said there are about 10,000 practitioners in California.
Nationally, the American Assn. for Respiratory Care also reports a shortage of nearly 3,000 therapists.
"One way to chart the shortage is that the number of classified ads (seeking therapists) in our association magazine has doubled in the past year," said Sherry Milligan, the group's assistant executive director.
LBCC is one of only six area community colleges to offer a two-year degree program for therapists. Rio Hondo, El Camino, Orange Coast, Los Angeles Valley and East Los Angeles are the others. And administrators at those schools said that while their programs are not endangered, their course enrollment is waning as well.
Michelle Boyer, program director at Rio Hondo College near Whittier, said that in the mid-1970s the respiratory therapy program at her college had 60 applications a year. But she said this year's class has only 12 students.
Thompson, a teacher at East Los Angeles College, said he believes the shortage has occurred partly because more women are finding opportunities in non-health fields, and partly because many students fear that medical work might expose them to AIDS.
"Traditionally female jobs are not as desirable as traditionally male jobs, which pay more," Thompson said. Others are wrongly afraid that working with AIDS patients, who often have chronic respiratory problems, is dangerous, he said.
"People think you can get AIDS just by being in the same room with someone (who is infected)," Thompson said.
Private Schooling Costly
A private school in Long Beach, California Paramedical and Technical College, offers a one-year, non-degree program for therapists at a cost of more than $4,000. The charge to the student at a community college is $50 a semester plus books.
"But our students get to go out and get a job after a year and make $20,000, so they are ahead in the long run," said Barbara Carter, the private school's program director.
Carter declined to say how many students are enrolled in her program, but state figures show that the private school has about five times as many students taking the state proficiency test as LBCC.
Some administrators criticized the graduates of one-year programs as being not as well trained as their community college counterparts.