There’s a tremendous need for nurses
Even before the COVID pandemic put an incredible strain on healthcare workers, the number of nurses was woefully inadequate to meet the needs of people across the United States. Today, post-pandemic, the healthcare staffing shortage has become a crisis, specifically in Colorado and especially in rural areas.
According to a report on workforce trends released by the consultancy Mercer, by 2026, employers will need to hire more than 1 million nurses across the country. On the list of 29 states where demand is outpacing supply, Colorado ranks behind only two other states and is projected to be more than 10,000 nurses short of what will be needed.
To address the shortage, Western Colorado University is in the process of developing a nursing program focused on the needs of rural communities as the gap between supply and demand grows toward a breaking point.
In June, the University was one of 46 recipients of funding from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT), receiving a $50,000 Opportunity Now grant to help fund the planning effort for what will become the Western Slope’s newest nursing program, focused on the unique needs of rural populations.
Then, in October, Western was invited to apply for a $1.5 million grant from the same fund to help implement the program over the next 33 months. If the application is successful, Western will receive those funds in early 2024 and start work on the programs immediately. A third phase of funding meant to help institutions scale their projects would be available later.
“There’s a tremendous need for nurses,” Professor of Exercise & Sport Science Lance Dalleck, who served as the Principal Investigator for the grant, said. “So this is a really big opportunity for Western.”
Dalleck said that since Western already has a Pre-Nursing Program, the University has the faculty needed to teach prerequisite courses for the program right now.
“But we will eventually need people who have a terminal degree in nursing. We’ve proposed three to four new faculty members plus a stand-alone administrator,” he said. “The other major expense is developing a space on campus where the students can be trained. As such, we have included funding in the grant for a simulation lab, where students can develop their nursing skills before they start their clinical rotations.”
In order to start moving graduates into the workforce quickly, the grant proposes a nursing program that offers students three different options: a traditional 4-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), an accelerated BSN program that would allow students to earn their degree in approximately 18 months, and a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program that will only take a few months for students to complete.
A layered approach like that will allow students with a CNA certification to return for more education if and when they choose. It will also allow CNAs who are currently working in the valley to continue their education without leaving the valley and creating staffing shortages.
“We lose one to two staff a year who are pursuing their career goals, mostly for nursing,” Gunnison Valley Health (GVH) Chief Nursing Officer Nicole Huff said. “We have had challenges recruiting their replacements for many different reasons, like the high cost of living, no housing, and low wages compared to competitors. So we have had to default to travelers who make twice as much as permanent staff, and they too are short-timers.”
Huff said that nurses in rural settings deal with their own unique challenges that their urban and suburban counterparts don’t, so they need to be trained accordingly.
“Rural nursing is a special kind of nursing that illuminates the skills each nurse possesses. In Urban areas, nurses have their “specialty”. In rural nursing, it is an expectation to know a little about a lot. The ability of a nurse to deliver a baby, then take care of an elderly patient in surgery and then save a life in the Emergency Department tells you that rural health nurses are beyond special. They are “unicorns” – unique and rare. We need these nurses here in Gunnison.”
To help the program recruit and retain students who can make an easy transition to employment, the GVH Foundation Board has committed $20,000 a year in scholarship money.
“We need to have the program be sustainable when funding concludes in 33 months,” Dalleck said. “What we propose would transition from fully funded by the grant to partially funded to self-sustaining,” Dalleck said.
The goal is to recruit 20 students each year for the program, which would bring in 80 students total by the time the program is full. “The leadership and faculty at Western know how important addressing the needs of rural nursing is for our state, and we are ready to step up by training the next generation of nurses,” Provost Jess Young said.
Author Credit: Seth Mensing
Photo Credit: F4D Studio