West Michigan Nursing Summit Formed

June 13, 2002
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As a nursing shortage looms in health care, a consortium of West Michigan colleges and universities has formed to interact, exchange ideas and discuss possible solutions.

Representatives from nursing schools at Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College, Hope/Calvin, University of Detroit Mercy/Aquinas and Ferris State University, among others, have formed the West Michigan Nursing Summit. It is a task force comprised of nursing department heads, hospital officials and educators trying to alleviate the nursing shortage and work together on recruitment and retention in health care.

"Everyone is trying to work together, because in reality I don't think any of the schools compete for students," said Marilyn Smidt, GRCC director of nursing. "The students that come to GRCC, for instance, tend to be older, need to be part-time or may have limited financial resources.

"Those attending the four-year schools tend to be younger and tend to be full-time students. Students sign to the school that meets their needs."

Most colleges now offer nursing training, whereas local hospitals ran such programs before the 1970s.

Estimates show a need for 400,000 additional nurses over the next 20 years, according to Phyllis Gendler, Ph.D., dean of the Kirkhoff School of Nursing at GVSU.

"There is a definite need and the proliferation of these (nursing) programs are trying to fulfill the need. The area has grown over the past 30 years and we have a population to educate and serve."

The summit's non-proprietarial approach is the result of a plan of action that is much wider in scale: the recruitment and retention of future nurses into health-care professions.

"It is nice to see everyone working together," Thomas said, noting that the need for nurses extends far beyond hospital care. "People tend to think of nurses only working at the bedside," Thomas said. "That still is a huge part of it, but there is so much more.

"Someone could become a research nurse, work for pharmaceutical companies or work in research to educate physicians. They can become part of teams to develop new drugs. They can teach. Large corporations need nurses on site for preventive health issues. There is a need for school nurses. A traveling nurse can see the country. One can work for the government or become a lobbyist. There are all types of options.

"It's a wonderful time to become a nurse right now."

GVSU opened its school of nursing in 1973, and was the first institution in the area to offer a BSN degree. GVSU, too, is alone in West Michigan in offering a graduate degree with a nursing emphasis.

Calvin and Hope colleges — fierce rivals in both athletic and academic arenas — combined resources to create another successful school of nursing.

"West Michigan is perceived as a very, very good health-care area, and programs want to come here whether it is nursing or a medical school," Gendler said. "They all see wonderful clinical opportunities in this area, which is a tremendous draw."

Responding to demand, GVSU provided additional course work this summer and will graduate close to 200 nurses in 2001-2002, according to Gendler.

GVSU offers two tracks for its bachelor program. Its graduate program features clinical tracks for practitioners or specialists, nursing administration, a combined masters of business and nursing, a case management track to manage and research diseases and an education emphasis for those who want to teach.

"After receiving their license to practice as a nurse, many of our graduates go on to graduate school to get their masters and doctorates, and become leaders in their communities," Gendler said.

Gendler said that the university also is designing a doctoral program that will be focused on a clinical doctorate for research, along with an education track that will produce faculty that will ensure generations of teachers and researchers.

"As far as being assured of finding a job, as a nurse you can always find a job," Gendler said. "Right now, we face a crisis with the worst shortage we've ever faced.

"A couple of years ago, everyone wanted to go into computers and not into nursing," Gendler continued. "With the unemployment going up, we're now seeing people being attracted to it, and with the shortage, the pay is going up. People are coming back to nursing and enrollment is going up. At the same time, we're keeping more people alive with technology than we ever have."

Grand Rapids Community College instituted a program for LPNs in 1948 and for RNs in 1967.

"We took the LPN program over from Butterworth Hospital in 1948 and all the other programs were based in the hospitals in 1967," Smidt said. "We are inexpensive and we are good, and that makes for a pretty attractive package.

"Our students have a very high percentage for passing state board exams and a history of high performance. Our reputation in the community is very good, and as a result we have a very high placement rate."

GRCC administers two cohorts of 40 students each per year for its RN program. The LPN program has three cohorts.

"I see an increasing number of students returning here with a bachelor's degree in something else, but they haven't found fulfillment in that something else," Smidt said. "They want a more meaningful situation at their work, and nursing can certainly offer that."

The two programs administered by UDM and Aquinas include an RN completion program for nurses pursuing BS degrees, and a 4-year cooperative program with Aquinas, UDM and St. Mary's Mercy Medical Center.

"It gives them the same education they would get in Detroit, but they don't have to go to Detroit to attend classes," Thomas said. "UDM professors teach the nursing and science part of it, Aquinas teaches the liberal arts, and all the clinicals are done within St. Mary's Medical Center.

"Aquinas has a wonderful liberal arts program and UDM is known throughout the state for its nursing program. At St. Mary's, students are exposed to a large array of in-depth health care."

The UDM/Aquinas program is starting its second year in Grand Rapids this fall. The first class has about 20 students, with 34 enrolled for fall.

"We're trying to keep classes relatively small for individualized attention," Thomas said.

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