Openness at SPSCC will help heal nursing program

August 18, 2013 

The South Puget Sound Community College class of nursing professor Jillian Heist, third from left, works on caring for dummy patients at the school last month. On Friday, the school was notified that its nursing program was losing accreditation. The school will appeal the ruling. One SPSCC spokeswoman said last spring’s accreditation visit “did not go well.”

PHOTOS BY STEVE BLOOM/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The widespread fear of a crippling shortage of nurses that gripped the nation seven years ago drove many nursing schools, such as South Puget Sound Community College, to overreact, in some cases growing student enrolments beyond its capacity to teach. Focusing on producing graduates to fill a perceived industry need distracted schools like SPSCC from noticing a confluence of emerging health care trends.

As a result, the college could temporarily lose its accreditation from the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission. But thanks to new leadership and support from local hospitals and Saint Martin’s University, SPSCC is retooling its program to meet both NLNAC standards and shifting requirements for nursing education.

Research had predicted in 2006 that 72 percent of all nurses would soon retire, creating alarming nursing shortages in hospitals and clinics. But it didn’t happen. The Great Recession caused working nurses to stay on the job longer, abating the crisis, and robbing nursing schools of qualified potential teachers for the skyrocketing number of career-seeking students.

More critically, a 2010 report in the Institute of Medicine called “Future of Nursing,” recommended that 80 percent of the nursing workforce have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (BSN). Reflecting a change in health care delivery that gave greater responsibilities and decision making to nurses, the report upset the traditional educational pathway into the nursing profession.

Most nurses historically began their career after earning a diploma or two-year associate’s degree. After spending years learning on the job, many continued their education to obtain baccalaureate degrees in nursing.

Hospitals today are increasingly demanding BSN degrees at the entry level. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the number of students enrolled in baccalaureate degree programs — known as RN to BSN programs — has been jumping by 13 percent to 20 percent per year since the 2010 report.

Those students are chasing the 26 percent increase in nursing positions, or more than 700,000 new jobs, now predicted to open up by 2020.

Despite its recent self-inflicted setback, SPSCC is well-situated to return with a fully accredited and redesigned program next fall. It is working closely with both Providence St. Peter Hospital and Capital Medical Center on a program redesign to create a seamless transition into Saint Martin’s RN to BSN program.

South Puget Sound Community College wasn’t the only nursing school adversely affected by the rapidly changing demands in nursing education. About 25 percent of nursing programs in the state either lost or never attained national accreditation.

After redesigning its program, SPSCC still will face significant challenges. High among them is the financial ability to attract sufficient nurses with Master of Science in Nursing degrees to teach even a scaled-down student enrolment. While a college environment offers less stress and quality of life benefits, nurses with MSN degrees still can earn more than twice as much in compensation in the industry as they can in teaching.

But SPSCC has faced its problems honestly and openly. It’s willingness to embrace necessary nursing program reforms should give confidence to SPSCC’s future students, partners and the greater community that will benefit from a growing pool of well-educated nurses.

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