Nonprofit working to boost nursing

Polly Johnson
Polly Johnson

Todd Cohen


N.C. — While North Carolina is home to 130,000 nurses and gets roughly 5,000 to 5,600 more each year because new nurses get licenses or others move here, the state still faces a projected shortage of 30,000 registered nurses by 2020.

The Foundation for Nursing Excellence is working to address that shortage, which is partly the result of inadequate support for new nurses and a lack of nursing educators, says Polly Johnson, president and CEO of tRaleigh-based nonprofit.

One initiative aims to help new nurses make the transition to nursing with the help of mentors and simulations, while another aims to help more nurses earn bachelor’s degrees and increase the pool of potential nursing educators.

Formed in 2002 by the N.C. Board of Nursing, the Foundation for Nursing Excellence has the mission of helping to improve health outcomes for North Carolinians by enhancing the practice of nursing.

National studies show one-third to three-fifths of new nurses change jobs within their first year of nursing, Johnson says.

To be eligible for their initial license as registered nurses, she says, nurses typically either complete a two-year nursing program leading to an associate degree, or a four-year nursing program leading to a bachelor’s degree.

In North Carolina, roughly two-thirds of nurses hold associate degrees and one-third hold bachelor’s degrees, she says.

The state needs more nurses with bachelor’s degrees “because they become the pipeline for advanced practice and nurse educators,” says Johnson, who retired last July as executive director of the North Carolina Board of Nursing, the state agency that licenses nurses and approves all education programs leading to initial licensing of nurses.

“The real crisis we are looking at is the faculty,” she says.

With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., Jonas Center for Nursing Excellence in New York City and the University of North Carolina system, the Foundation for Nursing Excellence has teamed up with Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and Western Carolina University in Cullowhee to develop a four-year educational track nursing students can pursue simultaneously at both schools.

Students who qualify by meeting the prerequisites at both schools will take pre-nursing courses at the community college in the first year and, in the second and third years will complete the associate-degree nursing program at the community college and take some nursing courses at the university.

At the end of the third year, after completing the associate-degree program, the students will be eligible to take the licensing exam to become registered nurses.

And in the fourth year, they will be able to work as registered nurses while completing the requirements for their bachelor’s degree in nursing.

By completing their first three years at the community college, where tuition is much lower, Johnson says, earning a bachelor’s degree
will be more affordable.

Of North Carolina nurses with associate degrees, only 15 percent go on to earn a bachelor’s degree and only three percent go on to earn a master’s degree, Johnson says.

“Until we can turn around the percentage of new nurses completing a baccalaureate degree,” she says, “we are continuing to decrease the faculty pipeline, which adds to the shortage.”

The foundation also is developing an evidence-based model to help new nurses through mentoring.

That initiative, which will include simulations to give new nurses competence and confidence, is supported by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, Duke Endowment, Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and 12 health systems throughout the state.

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