Educating tomorrow's nurses

Georgia’s colleges answering the call to train students for the profession

Georgia is on a mission to strengthen its pipeline of nurses. New nursing programs and initiatives are springing up around the state, and that’s good news for the health and welfare of Georgians.

Greater demand is driving the change. More nurses are needed for Georgia’s growing and aging population, yet more than 3,100 qualified students were turned away from nursing programs in 2011 due to lack of space, facilities and faculty, according to the Georgia Nursing Leadership Coalition.

To transform and improve the work force, nursing leaders in the coalition are following recommendations from the 2010 Institute of Medicine’s landmark report, “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.” The report affirmed that nurses need to be more involved in health care decisions and reform. Nurses make up the largest segment of the health care work force, spend the most time with patients and are on the front lines of delivering care to patients.

“The report made eight recommendations concerning nursing education, practice and leadership, but right now we’re focusing our attention on education. We want to create high-quality and seamless education for Georgia’s nurses,” said Linda Streit, dean of the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing of Mercer University. “Colleges and universities are launching new programs to increase access to nursing education and we need every one.”

The Georgia Association of Nursing Deans and Directors is helping schools address common issues and share information. Georgia wants to meet the IOM report’s goals of having 80 percent of the state’s nurses prepared at the baccalaureate-degree level and doubling the number of doctoral-prepared nurses by 2020. At the moment, less than half of the state’s nurses have a BSN degree.

“We need better-educated nurses at the bedside,” Streit said. “It’s not about the degree, but about the science and critical-thinking skills that allow nurses to practice at a higher level.”

Judith Wold started her nursing career with an associate degree in 1974 and has seen the field grow increasingly more complex with the advent of technology and evidence-based research.

“Nurses need to enter their profession now with a bachelor’s degree,” said Wold, distinguished professor for nursing leadership at Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.

An educator since 1981, Wold was named the Georgia Professor of the Year in 2012 by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

While Wold says that Georgia’s 26 associate degree programs in nursing are necessary to provide broader access to the field, she encourages nurses to continue their education.

“The evidence is increasing that BSN-prepared nurses at the bedside have better patient outcomes,” she said.

Nurses need more skills to work in hospitals and the other settings in which they practice — public health, occupational health and home health, to name a few.

“We only spend 4 percent of our health care budget on prevention, at present, but we can no longer afford to do that. We are treating so many chronic diseases that are preventable,” Wold said.

Mercer University will enroll 45 new BSN students on its Macon campus this fall. Shorter University, Berry College, Truett-McConnell College and Wesleyan College have launched or are developing baccalaureate nursing degree programs. Other colleges are adding RN-to-BSN bridge programs to make it easier for working nurses to further their education.

Accelerated fast-track BSN programs increase the nursing pool by letting people with other degrees train for nursing careers. Emory University’s accelerated BSN-to-MSN program produces advanced practice nurses, who are needed in leadership and in practice roles, especially in rural areas where there’s a shortage of general practice physicians.

“We have 17 master’s and advanced practice programs in Georgia and schools are trying to add more, but the shortage of nursing faculty is a major problem,” Wold said.

The average age of nursing professors is about 54, so schools are anticipating a rash of retirements in about 10 years.

There are about 187 students enrolled in nine nursing doctoral programs in Georgia. Wold expects those numbers to grow with help from a $1.4 million grant from the Georgia Board of Regents to increase enrollment in advanced degree programs.

“Georgia is investing in nursing education and career development, and that’s good for everyone,” Wold said.