June 11, 2018

CCSU expands nursing program with new lab, amenities

HBJ Photo | John Stearns
HBJ Photo | John Stearns
Catherine Thomas, an assistant nursing professor at CCSU, said her school's nursing facility expansion will accommodate a larger class of prospective caregivers.
Cheryl Ficara, Vice President of Patient Care Services, Hartford HealthCare

Shortage or Oversupply?

There is disagreement in the state about whether or not Connecticut has an adequate supply of nurses. Most admit some nursing jobs, like those in hospital operating rooms or ICUs, are in more demand than others.

Interestingly, a federal report projected the number of RNs in Connecticut in 2030 at 43,500, with projected demand of 40,000, a surplus of 3,500, ranking the state about in the middle of the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, National Center for Health Workforce Analysis published in 2017.

Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) is opening additional spots for nursing students this fall and providing more teaching tools, including more simulation labs and high-tech mannequins on which to practice, after the recent on-campus relocation and expansion of its nursing training facility.

The $1.1 million project roughly triples CCSU's training space to about 4,800 square feet and is expected to be an attractive marketing tool for potential students looking to enter a field that historically has offered good job prospects.

"I think really through the eyes of a prospective student and a parent, the fact that the university … made this commitment to the nursing program … gives a physical example that both the university and the (nursing) department are very committed to (students') learning and their learning needs," said Catherine Thomas, an assistant professor who was instrumental in shepherding the project over roughly the last year as former interim chair of CCSU's department of nursing.

The facility helps train students to get a bachelor's degree in nursing and a job as a registered nurse (RN) in a healthcare field where nurses have been in high demand, more so in some roles or parts of the country than others. However, there is disagreement about whether or not Connecticut has an adequate workforce supply right now, particularly as the state's aging nurse corps nears retirement.

Some research suggests there will be more RN supply than demand in Connecticut by 2030.

"I think it's perfectly accurate to say that we are not at a shortage status right now" on a statewide basis, said Elizabeth Beaudin, senior director of population health for the Connecticut Hospital Association, who holds a doctorate in nursing.

That said, myriad variables are at play and hospitals here do cite needs for experienced nurses in some departments like the ICU and operating room, Beaudin said. To that end, some hospitals offer up to yearlong residencies, including support from a coach or preceptor, to help train new nurses for those more demanding roles, realizing a new graduate won't be ready to walk immediately from the classroom into the OR or ICU, Beaudin said.

"There's some concern about … getting close to the demographic cliff and (hospitals) may lose a lot of people all at once," she said, referring to aging Baby Boomers nearing retirement. "And even if nationally and in the state we've made enough nurses, there's going to be some transition there that will be a challenge."

Connecticut nurses tend to be slightly older than the national average, Thomas said.

A 2015 survey found that 57 percent of the state's RNs were 50 or older and 43 percent were 55 or older, according to a report on the Connecticut League for Nursing's website.

Nationally, 50 percent of RNs were age 50 or older, according to the 2015 National Nursing Workforce Study from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

CCSU's Thomas acknowledged differing data on whether there's a nursing shortage in the state.

"I do know that there are definitely jobs out there, that our grads do not have difficulty in finding jobs, at all," she said.

Cheryl Ficara, vice president of patient care services for Hartford HealthCare (HHC), which has 3,742 nurses across its six hospitals and other care providers, said her organization recognizes there's a nursing shortage and "real demand" for nurses in specialty areas in many parts of the country.

They've been able to recruit nurses through several key partnerships formed with colleges and universities over many years, Ficara said.

"Through these partnerships, nursing students perform clinical rotations at Hartford Hospital, with many often leading to employment upon graduation," she said.

More nurses, though, are being asked to have bachelor's degrees, with nursing schools like CCSU preparing their graduates to take the nursing exam to become RNs.

CHA's Beaudin said hospitals will employ someone with an associate's degree, but typically require the nurse to get a bachelor's within a certain time frame, say five years, offering assistance that can include flexible work schedules and tuition reimbursement.

The Connecticut League for Nursing site reported 55 percent of the state's nurses had a bachelor's degree or higher.

Quality training is key

New nurses entering the field, particularly in hospital ICUs and ORs, face the added challenge of encountering sicker patient populations, as less urgent care moves out of the hospital setting, Beaudin said.

"You have to be pretty sick to be admitted to a hospital," she said, reflecting on the change from her days as an ICU nurse in the 1970s and '80s. "A lot of those patients that I probably took care of then are now out on medical surgical floors and the patients that are in the ICU are even sicker."

With that, hospitals understand new grads may need some internal residency time to get up to speed in some cases, Beaudin said.

Ficara said people are living longer and healthcare needs among patients have become more complex, requiring education and training to advance nurses' skills.

Nursing departments like CCSU's are doing their part to help prepare the next generation of nurses, including examining new programs.

CCSU's new training center will accept 60 new nursing students this fall, up from 50, thanks to the spacious new facility that provides a sense of entering a hospital wing, with various rooms and mannequins including for pediatrics, maternity, ICU and the ER, with patient monitors tracking vitals bedside just as nurses would see in a hospital. The facility doubled to eight the number of mannequins capable of presenting myriad symptoms and conditions to test students' acumen in lifelike scenarios. Ceiling video cameras can record results for future critiques.

The facility also includes computerized medication-dispensing machines mimicking what nurses will operate on the job, and a "debriefing room" where students can review care scenarios or study.

The new facility is located in the engineering, science and technology building, Nicolaus Copernicus Hall, which is convenient for nursing students taking myriad science classes, Thomas said. The nursing training facility had been in a smaller space across campus in Henry Barnard Hall. With the engineering department eventually getting a new building, nursing is expected to get even more room to grow.

For now, though, the new, larger facility helps satisfy demand for the program, which, like other nursing schools in the state, gets more applicants each year than space available.

"Probably nursing has been one of the only programs in our school that we've actually had to turn away students," said Kimberly T. Kostelis, interim dean of the school of education and professional studies at CCSU, which includes the department of nursing. "We did not have the capabilities of accommodating a larger cohort size, but now our goal is to slowly increase to at least a cohort of 75 each year, so that will definitely help retain the students at CCSU as well," including pre-nursing students who may have been previously unable to get into the program due to space constraints, forcing them to transfer to other nursing programs.

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