Nursing faculty grants offered

CareFirst launches Project RN to foster postgraduate studies

May 25, 2007|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,Sun reporter

To address the continuing shortage of nurses in the Baltimore-Washington region, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield has launched a new grant program intended to increase faculty at area nursing schools.

Officials at the Owings Mills-based health insurer say nursing schools are turning away tens of thousands of applicants because they don't have enough teachers.

And the problem is expected to get worse as older faculty members retire in a few years, because there are few graduate-trained nurses to replace them, according to a recent study commissioned by CareFirst.

"We wanted to really get to the root cause. If it had been a situation where not enough students were applying to nursing schools, then we would have gone in the direction of making the nursing profession more attractive and subsidizing programs in certain ways," said Dr. Jon Shematek, CareFirst's interim senior vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer.

CareFirst - which has 3.1 million members in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia - mailed applications last week for the program called Project RN to 11 schools in its coverage area with postgraduate nursing pro- grams.

CareFirst will commit $1 million to provide annual grants of $40,000 each for 12 master's nursing students over two years, typically the length of study for full-time students. The remaining $40,000 will be used for other activities to support Project RN.

CareFirst said it will give priority to schools that can demonstrate commitment to increase the number of part- or full-time educators by, for instance, providing matching funds or helping graduates secure teaching positions. The program is slated to begin in the 2007-2008 academic year.

Participating nursing schools will administer the grants, and students who receive funding must commit to three years of teaching in the region. Baccalaureate nursing programs require at least a master's degree for faculty members.

CareFirst officials and several administrators at Baltimore's nursing schools note that many graduate nursing students study part time because they have to work. Few financial aid options are available to allow these students to study full time, said Kathleen M. White, associate professor and director of the master's program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, which intends to apply for the program.

White, a member of CareFirst's board of directors, said Project RN could allow students "not only money for tuition but it also could be stipend money so that the person could be done faster."

"This will be for someone who wants to make a commitment to go full time and then have a teaching career," she added.

Across the country, hospitals and other health care providers are trying to meet the growing demand for nurses.

Nursing vacancies in Maryland topped 15 percent in 2001, but the rate has hovered around 10 percent from 2003 to 2005, according to the latest personnel survey by the Maryland Hospital Association.

The group is expected to release its 2006 survey soon. It will examine the number of nursing faculty members needed to fill nursing vacancies by 2016, said Nancy Fiedler, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Hospital Association.

To address the shortage, the state created a fund from hospital revenue to support training more nurses. Hospitals have recruited nurses from abroad, increased salaries and taken other measures to fill nursing jobs.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission announced this week creation of a scholarship program for students majoring in chronically short-staffed job areas, including nurses, teachers and child care providers.

The CareFirst study, conducted by the North Carolina Center for Nursing and NEW Associates LLC, a health policy consulting firm in Princeton, N.J., examined strategies that have been used to address the nursing shortage. It called increasing the nursing faculty "probably the most critical long-term need." The study found 33,000 qualified applicants were turned down by the nation's nursing schools last year because of the lack of educators.

Kathryn Lothschuetz Montgomery, associate dean for organizational partnerships, outreach and clinical enterprise at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, said she's hoping the school can use grants from CareFirst to help students in its doctor of nursing practice program, which includes an emphasis on teaching.

A master's degree gets nursing educators "in the door," Montgomery said. At the same time, "if they want to progress financially and in their credentials in academics, they need to have a doctorate," she added.

CareFirst officials said they would be open to such a proposal. A committee of CareFirst corporate giving and medical management staff is to select participating nursing schools by July 15.

By the numbers

33,000: Qualified applicants turned away from the nation's nursing schools last year because of the shortage of faculty members.

400: Doctoral nursing students graduating yearly. More than 3,400 students are enrolled in nursing doctoral programs at any one time.

46: Average age at which nurses receive doctorate degree.

53: Average age of doctoral-prepared faculty.

7.9: Faculty vacancy percentage rate in bachelor's and postgraduate degree programs in 2006.

[ Source: Nursing shortage analysis white paper prepared by Victoria Weisfeld, Brenda Cleary and Neil Weisfeld and commissioned by CareFirst, September 2006]

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