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UALR teams with hospital to add nurses

Program viewed as win-win

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Photographs by Staton Breidenthal

Assistant professor Sloan Davidson (right) keeps an eye on nursing students (from left) Tyler Simpson, Deziray Jackson, Karla Diaz-Claudio and Ashley Montgomery as they examine a mannequin Thursday on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is partnering with CHI St. Vincent to enroll 40 nursing students a year into an accelerated program that will end with employment at the health system.

The three-year agreement announced Thursday will financially help students in the Pathway Program, expand the university’s student capacity in the department of nursing and fill the staffing needs at St. Vincent facilities. Currently, central Arkansas has more than 700 empty nursing positions, and industry officials expect the number to grow in the coming years, said Chad Aduddell, the hospital’s CEO.

“Our baby boomers are aging, and so is our nursing workforce,” he said. “One study says that 55 percent of the nurse workforce is 50 or older, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the shortage will only get worse: we’ll need 16 percent more nurses over the next seven to eight years. This problem is particularly acute in Arkansas where we are one of the top 10 states with the highest demand for additional nurses.”

Coupled with an aging workforce, the nursing shortage also is affected by school enrollment not outpacing the demand, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. That is in part because there aren’t enough nursing instructors, the association said.

To teach in the field, a nurse must have at least a master’s degree or be enrolled in a master’s degree program, said Ann Bain, UALR’s dean of the College of Education and Health Professions. More than half of the working nurses now hold associate degrees, said Preston Molsbee, the chairman of UALR’s nursing department. Universities also need to have competitive salaries for nurses to teach, he said.

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Under the partnership, the hospital will donate $333,333 a year through the remainder of the agreement. That money will help the university add at least three more faculty members to the current 22-person department, Molsbee said.

The first group of 40 students will start this fall with tuition-only scholarships — $1,250 per semester each. UALR expects those students to graduate in December 2018 with associate of applied science degrees. The students will be required to work at St. Vincent facilities for at least two years for the scholarship amounts to be forgiven.

“Our goal is for them to graduate with no student debt,” UALR Chancellor Andrew Rogerson said.

A student who wants to be a part of the program must have finished all general-education courses with at least a 2.6 grade-point average and have a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.0. The student must fill out a department of nursing application between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28, and include all college and university transcripts, and examination scores for credit in required general-education courses.

Any students who previously have participated in registered nurse or licensed practical nurse programs are not eligible for the fast-track path, according to the memorandum.

All students will be accepted conditionally until they finish the essential nursing-skills course, submit all required documents by the date set on the conditional acceptance letter, maintain their GPAs and attend a department orientation session.

The accelerated track is 18 months, six months shorter than the normal nursing program, meaning the students will continue courses throughout the summer. Students will train at one or more of St. Vincent’s campuses and apply for nursing positions at the hospital before graduating. The hospital will consider the students’ top two preferred clinical areas of interest.

If a student leaves before the required two-year employment period, the scholarship will turn into a loan with interest.

“St. Vincent is giving very generously for the first three years,” Rogerson said, adding that the university will pick up the costs after the three years.

Leah Smith, a registered nurse at the hospital and a graduate of UALR’s nursing program, said she looks forward to seeing how the program evolves.

“I think it’s great that we are expanding and trying to cover the nursing shortage,” she said. “I know sometimes it can be very stressful. You come to work and there’s not enough nurses, and sometimes the nurse-to-patient ratio is overwhelming. And there have been times when I’ve had six to seven patients, and it’s scary, and you can’t really give that quality patient care.”

Thursday’s announcement topped off the 50-year partnership between UALR and St. Vincent. Almost a half-century ago, the hospital’s nursing diploma program moved off its campus and to the Little Rock university, Aduddell said.

“Like UA Little Rock, CHI St. Vincent is an institution that has been part of this community for generations,” he said. “Our ministry began 129 years ago when the sisters of Charity of Nazareth answered the call to serve Arkansas. Today, our hospitals and clinics are great places to work, to practice medicine and to provide excellent care to the people of this state. But none of that would be possible without nurses, the cornerstone of our ministry.”

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