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Cox, Mercy invest in nursing workforce

RN demand is expected to grow 9% nationally by 2030

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Filling job openings for registered nurses is an ongoing challenge nationally, but both CoxHealth and Mercy Springfield Communities are investing to bring more students into the profession.

Cox College completed a $6.6 million renovation project in 2020 that allowed it to expand its nursing student count to 400 from 250. But that’s not the only investment the CoxHealth-affiliated college is making to its 1423 N. Jefferson Ave. campus. It’s also undertaking a multimillion-dollar project to renovate and expand its simulation laboratory for nursing students.

At Mercy, the local hospital partnered with Missouri State University this fall on a nursing pilot program dubbed Earn as You Learn. MSU School of Nursing students will be compensated for clinical hours worked at Mercy Hospital Springfield this fall, officials say. Clinical hours also count as degree credit.

The health systems are making the investments to try and keep up with demand for registered nursing workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for RNs is expected to reach over 3.35 million jobs in 2030, a projected 9% increase from the 3 million employed in 2020. About 194,500 openings for RNs are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Celeste Cramer, CoxHealth’s director of recruitment and retention, said the health care provider has added at least 400 nursing positions since 2015. She said the jobs were added due to CoxHealth opening its $42 million new hospital in Monett this year, as well as new urgent care facilities and the 2018 purchase of Barton County Memorial Hospital in Lamar.

However, the addition of all those positions hasn’t translated to an equal number of hires.

“Recruiting continues to be a challenge for health care,” Cramer said, noting CoxHealth has about 325 nurse openings systemwide. “Other industries are now feeling what we’ve been feeling for a while.”

She said CoxHealth currently employs 1,852 registered nurses, a nearly 17% increase since 2018.

College work
Amy Townsend, vice president of student nursing at Cox College, said the COVID-19 pandemic is a likely contributor to a roughly 3% dip in enrollment this semester over last year. The college enrollment is 956 for the fall semester with 520 of the students in the nursing program, she said. Other than nursing, Cox College also offers degrees in radiology, nutrition diagnostics, occupational therapy and other programs.

“We are seeing a bit of an impact in terms of enrollment, but not large, and it certainly mirrors what’s happening nationwide in higher ed,” Townsend said. “We do expect it to rebound once the uncertainty of the pandemic and everything surrounding it subsides.”

Undergraduate enrollment declined nationally 3.2% this fall, which follows a similar drop of 3.4% the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

While Townsend said some students have decided to pivot from their career path in nursing, most are staying the course.

“What we’re seeing for the vast majority of students that have been interested in nursing, this has really reaffirmed that this is what they want to do. … They feel more resolute in their decision,” she said.

The college’s renovation project completed last year added student gathering spaces and expanded classrooms. That turned out to be particularly valuable amid the pandemic, when social distancing was a necessity in the classrooms, Townsend said.

The college also received a $1.9 million grant in the spring through the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration as a part of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding. CoxHealth spokesperson Kaitlyn McConnell said matching funds of $470,480 were provided by donors to the college for renovating and expanding the simulation lab, which trains nursing students on equipment.

“That’s allowing us to go from running four simulations at a time to running nine,” Townsend said of the project, which also added three control centers and five debriefing rooms.

She said the expansion is expected to wrap up next month.

Clinical commitment
MSU nursing students looking to complete clinicals and get paid in the process are doing so in the newly launched Earn as You Learn program. The initial cohort is 37 students, all of whom are seniors set to graduate from MSU in December, said Jessica Atchison, director of professional practice for Mercy Springfield Communities.

“With the nursing shortage, we knew that we better do something different and innovative in our clinical cohort and integrate it into that professional practice,” Atchison said. “So, we started working on that.”

The students are onboarded at Mercy the same as any employee of the health care provider, she said, adding the program also offers a larger number than the typical 90 clinical hours at patient bedsides. 

“With our program, we extended that to 132 hours. We are able to provide them not only a foundation experience but to provide them experience in some specialty areas,” she said, noting that includes emergency room and surgery.

Mercy funds the program by paying students $2,000 each per semester, Atchison said. It’s already producing dividends for Mercy and the students, she added.

“Historically, we hire about 10%-15% of MSU’s graduating class,” she said, adding the total has increased to about 30% to date for this December’s pending graduates.

Hospital officials say they are pleased enough with early response to the program that it will be an ongoing offering at Mercy. It’s now been opened to other schools’ nursing programs, including Ozarks Technical Community College, Southwest Baptist University and College of the Ozarks, Atchison said, adding Mercy hopes to have about 60 students in the next cohort.

“We’d like to grow as we go forward, but it will completely depend upon the interest because we are asking them to sign a six-month service agreement with Mercy’s system,” she said. “That does make it a little bit challenging because people have to be committed to working for Mercy in some capacity.”

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