With safety-shielded syringes and proper calibration techniques, the students in Tarrant County College’s nuclear medicine technology program learn how to use small amounts of radioactive substances to both diagnose and treat disease.

“It’s really more for physiology than anatomy. You can flow the patient, and it’s almost like seeing a movie of the patient,” said Vineet Patel, one of the students in the class. He was describing the imaging technique used in nuclear medicine, where they inject — flow — a patient with small amounts of a radioactive substance to peek inside the body. “You see the blood flow. You see how well an organ functions.”

There’s a whole list of reasons why Patel and the other students are training to become nuclear medicine technicians. They want to enter a field that’s growing. They like that they have a lot of patient interaction. And then, there’s the salary. 

“I want a stable income and money, not living paycheck to paycheck,” said Kim Bernal of Mansfield. She has three young children, and her husband and mother help out with the kids while she takes classes and works a clinical rotation at a local hospital. “It’s for the future of my kids.”

Bernal graduated high school in 2010 and worked as a health care case worker. When it was time for her to go back to school, she looked for a profession where there was growth and money. The median annual pay in 2023 for nuclear medicine technologists is $92,500, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And there’s growth.

 “I can’t get enough students graduated and get them through fast enough,” said Tonya Pigulski, the program director of the nuclear medicine technology program. “There’s such a demand.”

The program is small, selective and demanding. Each year, around 50 TCC students who have taken the prerequisite courses apply. Fifteen are admitted and around 10 graduate. It’s just one program at TCC’s Trinity River Campus East Center for Health Care Professions, where there are classes in health information technology, diagnostic medical sonography and other growing fields. 

“I think Texas is no different (than the rest of the country) in that the health care sector is expected to continue to have increased needs,” said Rahul Sreenivasan, a policy advisor with Texas 2036, a nonpartisan public policy research and advocacy organization. 

In a recent report, Texas 2036 projects that health care jobs in the state will increase by 8%, from 2021 to 2026. 

“Again, that’s reflective of an aging population and increased prevalence of chronic conditions,” Sreenivasan said. 

Academic fields such as registered nursing, licensed practical nursing, emergency medical technology, biological sciences and psychology are among the top 20 fields in terms of enrolled students at community colleges in Texas. At public universities in Texas, registered nursing, psychology, biology and kinesiology are among the top 10 fields in terms of enrollment, according to an April 2023 report by Texas 2036 on workforce trends.

At Tarleton State University in Fort Worth, which will open a new building this fall to house classrooms and labs for its College of Health Sciences, a needs assessment was conducted to help determine the programs that they would offer.

“It was really canvassing the community, listening to the community and looking at different data sets,” said Ramona Parker, executive dean of Tarleton’s College of Health Sciences. “We decided what programs to offer, from nursing to medical lab sciences, speech language pathology and kinesiology, which can lead to physical therapy or occupational therapy.”

Parker said the university — both in Fort Worth and at its main Stephenville campus — is addressing the shortage of nurses in rural areas.

“There are very few health care providers, such as nurses, physicians, physical therapists and occupational therapists in these areas,” Parker said. “We just want to be part of that solution.”

Colleges and universities around Tarrant County are working on solutions to the shortage of nurses. This fall, the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth will welcome its first group of students in its College of Nursing. This fall, they will offer a path for registered nurses to attain bachelor’s of science in nursing degrees. Next year, a general bachelors of science in nursing degree program is expected to kick off. 

The University of Texas at Arlington will also introduce a rural health undergraduate certificate this fall. UTA has also expanded facilities for social work and health care. In 2023, they opened a new Smart Hospital/School of Social Work building, with over 150,000 square feet of space. 

At TCU’s Pre-Health Professions Institute, enrollment has doubled over the past 10 years, and the university plans to introduce a public health major.

“We have an aging population, we have an aging workforce in health care, and we have a decrease in the number of people who are staying in health care for the (entire) trajectory of my predecessors,” said Sylvia Trent-Adams, president of UNT Health Science Center, who spoke at a recent event on college leadership. 

Trent-Adams and other area higher education leaders are developing programs to educate their students for jobs in a growing industry. 

Higher education reporter at Fort Worth Report in partnership with Open Campus.