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Recession having little impact on radiation, proton therapy jobs

First class of Ivy Tech program graduates found well-paying jobs quickly

By Nicole Brooks
331-4232 |

Larry Swafford, an Ivy Tech professor and chairman of the radiation therapy program. Nicole Brooks | Herald-Times

April 11, 2009

Of the eight students in Ivy Tech’s first class of radiation therapists, six had jobs waiting for them upon graduation.

The remaining two grads had jobs within a few months, said Jason Dixson, who was in that 2008 class.

In this economy — or any economic climate — “that’s pretty good,” said Larry Swafford, an Ivy Tech professor and chairman of the radiation therapy program, launched in 2006.

Local college graduates hoping to enter the work force next month face companies that have downsized and instituted hiring freezes. Proton therapy, an advanced form of radiation treatment for specific tumors, appears to be a safe career choice.

“For the foreseeable future, it’s a very stable career,” John Cameron, founder, chairman and president of ProCure Treatment Centers, said of proton therapy.

“One might say, unfortunately, it’s a good industry.” Seventy-five percent of all cancer patients are older than 55, Cameron said. Baby boomers are aging, and “the need for therapy is going to go up.”

Cameron’s $10 million ProCure center on North Walnut Street is the only facility in the world to offer proton radiotherapy training.

Dixson was hired on at ProCure’s first proton therapy center in Oklahoma City. He was in Bloomington this week for additional training at ProCure’s facility.

The Ivy Tech radiation therapy degree consists of a full two years of clinical experience, Dixson said. “We can literally go to any clinic and do anything an employer asks of us.”

And, the starting pay was what he expected, Dixson said. Starting salaries for Bloomington-area radiation therapists are in the neighborhood of $55,000, Swafford said.

Radiation therapists, and those who continue on to be certified as proton therapists, are a select bunch. They are in high demand that may only get higher. In the U.S. today there are perhaps 10,000 radiation therapists, Swafford said, and only 200 proton therapists.

Proton therapy centers will likely be limited to large cities, due to the expense of building and running the facilities, Swafford said. Bloomington has the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute, co-owned by Indiana University and Clarian Health Partners.

“They’re still going to have these centers open up in the next five years,” Swafford said of proton centers. He said two are going up now in Chicago and another will open in Philadelphia.

But even proton therapy isn’t recession-proof, Swafford said.

The lagging economy is “finally starting to hit health care.” There are fewer jobs because health care professionals aren’t retiring, Swafford said. “I think the economy has played a part, in hiring freezes. I know of three open positions,” right now, he said.

Facilities are not expanding and are not adding therapy machines, he said, and there is also the “unknown of what Obama and the administration are going to do with health care reform.”

Ivy Tech will graduate its second class of radiation therapists May 15. The program has only eight slots a year, and Swafford gets between 20 and 30 applications each year.

Ivy Tech continues to prepare for greater demand for proton therapists, despite the unknowns that come with a flailing economy.

This summer, the college will enroll its first group of registered radiation therapists who want a proton therapy certificate. The proton therapy specialist certificate follows a 12-week course, Swafford said. Ivy Tech hopes to lease space at ProCure for part of the training.

“It should be the first in the whole world,” Swafford said of the proton therapy certificate program.