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Upskilling the Nursing Workforce

It all starts with advanced nursing education.

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The nation's healthcare system is in a period of unprecedented change. The U.S. population is growing and becoming more diverse. The country's largest generation-the Baby Boomers-is getting older and requires more care. And the Affordable Care Act has expanded access to health insurance to all Americans, sending more consumers than ever into the system to obtain care.

These pressures are affecting an already impacted healthcare system, raising concerns about the country's long-term capacity to meet the needs of patients. The ability to uphold and provide quality care starts with the "health" of the healthcare workforce.

Nurses with advanced education credentials can be particularly critical due to the need for today's professionals to navigate a complex healthcare system.1

In fact, studies have found a strong link between improved patient outcomes and nurses with bachelor's and graduate-level education.1 The Institute of Medicine (now the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine) published a call to prepare at least 80% of the nation's nursing professionals to have bachelor's degrees by 2020.2

Despite the need for more nurses with expanded skillsets and advanced education, many nurses are being turned away from educational opportunities.

In 2014 alone, nearly 69,000 qualified applicants to baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs were turned away due to an insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, clinical preceptors, and budget constraints.

These were the findings of a survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).3 Almost two-thirds of the responding nursing schools pointed to faculty shortages as a reason for not accepting all qualified applicants into baccalaureate programs.3

Combine that with the anticipated wave of nurse faculty retirements,4 and the problem is evident.

We need to recruit and teach more nurses. But to teach more nurses, we first need additional nursing faculty . and that requires current nurses to head back to the classroom and continue their education.

Advanced education has historically been viewed as a luxury. However, it's important for healthcare leaders to work together to increase the proportion of nurses with advanced education to meet the healthcare needs of today and tomorrow.2 To get there, we must ensure that nurses have a seamless experience continuing their education while maintaining their careers.

Providing pathways to degrees and cultivating collaboration are key steps.

Enrollment in nursing programs is increasing in response to the need for a more highly educated nursing workforce. Advanced degree programs can play a critical role in ensuring that we build a talent pipeline, but it takes faculty talent to arrive at this outcome.5

Educational institutions play a critical role in the healthcare landscape by ensuring we can educate an increased number of advanced practice nurses prepared to fill roles across the continuum of care.

In my role as an academic dean, I see the day-to-day benefits of providing such education. Our institution is leveraging networks of healthcare, government and business relationships to ensure our academic programs can prepare students for success, as well as address tomorrow's challenges. We renew our curriculum and programs to stay abreast of trends to help current and aspiring nurses move efficiently from education to careers and stay on the leading edge of their professions.

Part of providing nursing students with the best healthcare education possible is to hire, develop and retain high-quality faculty who provide career-relevant skills and knowledge. Our faculty members are working professionals with direct insight into what local organizations require from nurses. They have the ability to bring curricula to life by connecting theories to real-world scenarios, connecting students to careers and professional development opportunities, and ultimately helping students understand what it takes to effectively manage care teams and improve patient outcomes.

Advanced education is a key ingredient to cultivating leaders.

As a nurse leader in higher education who has worked close to 40 years as an RN, I see many nurses exploring options to advance their education beyond a BSN to meet the challenging dynamics of today's healthcare landscape. Why? In addition to contributing to improved patient outcomes,6 additional education exposes nurses to the management, knowledge and skills necessary to navigate the complexity of healthcare and lead through it.

In my role as an academic leader, I can attest that many specialized advanced degree programs, such as in nursing administration and nursing education, are addressing these needs. In my experience as an RN, my advanced degrees provided the information and skills necessary to help me contribute in expanded ways toward improving patient care, the nursing profession and the healthcare system.

By advancing the profession, we can advance the industry.

As the complexity of the healthcare industry continues to grow, its success will depend largely on the strength of its employees. As a nation, we must address the importance of advanced education for nurses, highlight the immense opportunities available for the next generation of healthcare leaders, and provide a clear road map for aspiring professionals. More can be done-and should be done-to recruit, upskill and retain talent, and to develop the next generation of nurse leaders. These steps are essential to moving our profession forward. n


1. American Association of College of Nursing: The Impact of Education on Nursing Practice.

2. Institute of Medicine. The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.

3.American Association of Colleges of Nursing. New AACN Data Confirm Enrollment Surge in Schools of Nursing.

4. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Nursing Faculty Shortage Fact Sheet

5. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Degree Completion Programs for Registered Nurses: RN to Master's Degree and RN to Baccalaureate Programs.

6. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Creating a More Highly Qualified Nursing Workforce.

Betty Nelson is the academic dean for the University of Phoenix College of Health Professions School of Nursing.

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