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VA Nursing Academy Expands to 15 Universities, Medical Facilities

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 10, 2009 – Five collegiate nursing programs yesterday became the newest partners in a Veterans Affairs Department initiative to bring more nurses into the national work force and improve the quality of health care veterans receive, the director of the VA’s Nursing Academy pilot program told American Forces Press Service today.

In a telephone interview, Linda D. Johnson said the partnerships address the national shortage of nurses that’s been a major concern of health care providers for several years. Since 2000, hospitals throughout the country have reported annual nursing shortages, but more than 100,000 qualified applicants were turned away from nursing schools during the same time, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nurses.

The main reason for applicants being turned away is a lack of educators, said Johnson, who has a doctorate in health professions education and more than 40 years of experience in the military and VA health care systems.

Surveys of nursing schools with bachelor’s degree programs show that as many as 75 percent of the nation’s nursing schools have faculty shortages that prevent them from increasing enrollment, she said.

“There’s just not enough room in the classrooms to facilitate all the qualified applicants,” she said.

The five-year pilot program began in 2007 with four VA-nursing school partnerships in an effort to counter the shortage. VA officials believed offering funding for additional faculty positions would enable the schools to increase their student enrollment and ultimately make a positive impact on the nursing shortage, Johnson said.

In 2008, six more universities, with their local VA hospitals, were selected to participate in the program. The latest partnerships the VA established are with:

-- Western Carolina University in Asheville, N.C.;

-- University of Alabama at Birmingham, Ala.;

-- University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu;

-- Pace University in New York; and

-- Waynesburg University in Pittsburgh.

Each of the 15 schools now in the program was competitively selected through a formal proposal request, in which VA officials gave points based on the schools’ past relationships with local VA facilities, their perception of the schools’ commitment to VA, how they intended to increase learning and improve education practices, and commitment by the local VA faculty.

“We didn’t just choose the school,” Johnson explained. “We chose the VA hospital as well. We looked at the commitment by the VA and the facility leadership to support a culture of excellence in nursing education because we really want it to be a great environment for people to learn.”

The requires each school to increase enrollment by 20 students in its first year, and then by 40 every year after. The partner VA hospital provides five faculty members the first year, and 10 each following year. The VA faculty teaches classes and supervises hands-on, clinical learning at the VA hospital, she said.

The program’s budget is around $59 million for the five years, Johnson said. By academic year 2011-2012, when the pilot is scheduled to end, at least an additional 1,000 baccalaureate-prepared nurses will be graduates, while 440 new faculty positions will have been added across the 15 nursing schools, she added.

Although the program will produce more nurses nationwide, Johnson said, VA officials hope to attract nurses for employment at VA facilities. She said she hopes students will value and enjoy their clinical experiences with the VA, while the VA nursing school faculty will appreciate the new opportunities within the VA system.

Johnson added that even if faculty members and graduates decide to seek private-sector employment, they’ll still benefit from their VA experience. VA officials believe a large portion of the nation’s veterans seek health care outside the VA system, and the nurses will have a better understanding of what it takes to care for the nation’s veterans because of their prior experiences at the VA facilities, she said.

“Recruitment of the graduates is a focus of the program, but not all the students are going to come to the VA,” Johnson said. “When those nurses who have some clinical experience in the VA interact with veterans in the private sector, we hope they’ll have a better understanding of who is a veteran and what makes them unique and what kinds of experience they have that makes them different from everybody else.”

As the program approaches its halfway point, the first set of schools is finishing up its second year in the program. Although Johnson remains hopeful, she said, it’s too early to determine the program’s fate.

“We don’t have enough data yet, at this point,” she said. “But what we’re already seeing is substantial increases in recruitment of students that come to the VA, so I don’t think we’re going to have any difficulty demonstrating the success of it. We’ll just have to see.”

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