A 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine recommended that the number of nurses with a bachelor's degree increase by 80 percent by the year 2020 in order to create a workforce to meet the demands of our increasingly diverse population.
Why? Research has shown nurses who hold bachelor's degrees have better patient outcomes, increased job satisfaction and better communication and problem-solving skills.
The University of South Florida responded to this research with a customer stakeholder approach that included focus groups with more than 200 individuals -- students, hospital administrators, educators and nurses -- asking what would enhance their practice and what would make nurses more likely to return to school. The result was a brand new program.
"We're really trying to prepare them for not only what they're facing now, but what they'll be facing in the next 20 years,'' says Dr. Rita D'Aoust, associate dean for academic affairs at the USF College of Nursing
Riverview resident Cheryl Combs agrees.
"I can tell I'm going to become a better nurse,'' says Combs, a home health care nurse currently enrolled in the program
. "A lot of the projects they're having us do are making me better at my profession.''
Combs, now 35, entered the program in January after taking some time off after receiving her associate's degree from Hillsborough Community College in 2006. While attending HCC, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She underwent chemotherapy for four months and had to get permission from her oncologist to go back to school.
"I was really determined to graduate,'' says Combs.
Now, Combs and other students enjoy the flexibility of the completely online bachelor's degree program, allowing working students to study and learn at a time and place most convenient to them. The 30-credit program can be completed in five semesters if attending part-time (as little as three semesters with a full-time schedule), with a total cost of just under $6,000. Fifty students were enrolled this past spring; another 85 started this summer.
The program has three major focus areas: clinical practice, education and leadership.
Students complete projects that can be used immediately at their workplace and are also asked for ways they can improve their current practice. They conduct research on real-world health needs in the community. One student recently studied ways to help emotionally unstable patients during a disaster such as a hurricane. The goal is to take these projects back to the workplace for community impact.
"It's all about what you can learn and what you can take back,'' says Sandy Czerwinsky, director of the R.N. to B.S. Program.
Knowing that nurses have the most interaction with patients, the program also looks at the educational role of the nurse. Students learn about health literacy, how people learn and how to make sure patients understand their health care instructions.
In a recent assignment, Combs created a PowerPoint presentation that described how to teach patients about their diseases. The project translated directly into a situation she had with a patient.
"The image of the PowerPoint popped into my head when I was assessing her,'' she says. Combs plans to use the assignment, as well as others, in her future practice.
Nurses are most visible in direct care positions, but they often work in leadership and administrative roles as well. The leadership component focuses on administrative tasks such as determining how many nurses are needed for a shift.
The community at-large is supportive of the program, with several local hospitals moving toward a requirement that newly hired nurses have a bachelor's degree. Most offer tuition reimbursement programs and are willing to work with school schedules.
Combs likes the program's flexibility.
"It's manageable, even while you're working.''
She plans to graduate in 2013 and then go straight into the master's degree program. As a cancer survivor, she says she wants to dedicate her life to an oncology role. She's also thinking about becoming a professor at a nursing college so she can help mentor new nurses.
"It's kind of tough when you're a newbie. I want to foster the new nurses and let them know not to give up.''
Megan Hendricks is a Florida native and longtime Tampa Bay resident who loves the culture and diversity of the region. In her free time she enjoys local restaurants, thrift store shopping and spending time with her family. She earned her masters of business administration from USF Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.