The Columbus Dispatch

July 16, 2012

By Ben Sutherly

When they’re not at a bedside, record numbers of Ohio nurses have been hitting the books.

Nationwide, enrollment of registered nurses in bachelor’s of science degree programs soared to nearly 90,000 last year, a 76 percent increase from 2007, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

And in Ohio, enrollment in so-called RN-to-BSN programs increased more than fourfold, from 1,686 in 2008 to 7,780 in 2011. The association said those numbers are voluntarily reported and are likely undercounts.

Ohio’s public universities awarded 1,918 bachelor’s degrees in nursing in 2010. That’s more than double the 906 degrees awarded in 2002, according to the Ohio Board of Regents.

Why? Employers are encouraging it.

In January, Nationwide Children’s Hospital began requiring new nursing hires to have a bachelor’s degree or earn one within five years. Nurses already employed were grandfathered.

Research suggests nurses with more advanced degrees are associated “with better rescue of patients who are deteriorating,” said Linda Stoverock, Nationwide Children’s chief nursing officer.

Mount Carmel, OhioHealth and Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center are setting timetables to reach an Institute of Medicine goal that 80 percent of nurses have a bachelor’s degree by 2020. The percentage of nurses with bachelor’s degrees is 40 percent to 45 percent at Mount Carmel and 60 percent at Wexner. OhioHealth last week said it couldn’t provide systemwide data.

That goal won’t be reached through hiring practices alone, said Gingy Harshey-Meade, CEO of the Ohio Nurses Association. Working nurses would have to return to school.

“You have to create incentives in the workplace to get people to go back to school,” she said. “ If you’re working full-time, it’s another big, full-time commitment.”

Local hospitals have nudged nurses back to school by reimbursing tuition and other incentives.

One is Kassy Robinson, a critical-care nurse at OhioHealth’s Grant Medical Center who received her bachelor’s degree a month ago. “I think I held them off for about five years,” she joked.

At Grant, the percentage of bedside nurses with bachelor’s degrees has climbed in recent years, from 31 percent in 2006 to 47 percent in 2011.

Robinson, 33, of Marengo, put off more school while her children were young. But once her youngest child started kindergarten, she enrolled in an Ohio University online nursing program.

An OhioHealth nurse for 10 years, Robinson said additional education helped her understand why she was doing her work a certain way. “You feel like you’re a little bit more able to be a leader,” she said.

Mount Carmel, OhioHealth and Wexner Medical Center still hire nurses with associate degrees and don’t require them to earn a bachelor’s degree within a specified period of time.

Hospital nurse executives said they value associate-degree nurses, noting that their diversity of backgrounds mirrors that of patients. But when they hire such nurses, they want them to further their education.

“We are concentrating on the bachelor’s-degree nurse more than the associate-degree nurse,” said Catherine Luchsinger, chief nursing officer for Mount Carmel Health System. “It gives them opportunities beyond the bedside.”

The Ohio Nurses Association would support passage of a bill that would require all new nurses licensed in Ohio to also have a bachelor’s degree in nursing within 10 years.

But that initiative has stalled. The Ohio Hospital Association opposes the mandate, saying many hospitals already are moving in that direction voluntarily.

And the Ohio Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, is concerned a mandate could limit the supply of nurses.

But as hospitals seek more nurses with bachelor’s degrees, more nurses with associate degrees are taking jobs at nursing homes, said Peter Van Runkle, Ohio Health Care Association executive director.

At some hospitals, pushing for more highly educated nurses is part of an effort to earn or retain magnet status, a widely recognized designation of quality nursing care. That designation is held locally by OhioHealth’s Grant Medical Center and Riverside Methodist Hospital; Nationwide Children’s Hospital; and University and Ross Heart hospitals at Wexner Medical Center.

All else being equal, nurses with associate degrees are paid as much as nurses with bachelor’s degrees at Nationwide Children’s, Mount Carmel and OhioHealth. But at Wexner Medical Center and the Chalmers P. Wylie VA Ambulatory Care Center, nurses with bachelor’s degrees are paid more.

The average hourly wage for a staff registered nurse in Ohio was $27.27 in 2011, according to an Ohio Hospital Association survey.

Even when a bachelor’s degree doesn’t increase the pay of staff nurses, it opens the door to higher-paying jobs such as clinical educators, nursing executives said.

As nurses are returning to school, enrollment in bachelor’s-degree programs at local nursing colleges has ballooned. This year, 153 people enrolled in Ohio State’s bachelor’s in nursing program, up more than 50 percent from last year. Mount Carmel College of Nursing graduated 244 undergraduates this year, up from 145 five years ago.

Nursing colleges said they also are seeing tremendous growth in bachelor’s nursing-degree programs that are online or tailored to college-educated professionals interested in switching careers. Ohio University’s online RN-to-BSN program alone has seen credit hours soar from 5,162 in fall 2009 to 28,310 in fall 2011.

Many associate-degree programs have retooled to help graduates continue their nursing education, emphasizing that they shouldn’t see an associate degree as a “terminal degree.”

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