New Path to Healthcare

New Path to Healthcare

Changing role of nurses sparks reform in healthcare education.
By Pauline Oo

TODAY’S NURSES ARE DOING MORE. In an age when we’re living longer, nurses are caring for older people and helping them maximize their health. They’re tending to sicker patients — people with multiple illnesses. They’re using electronic technology to track patient outcomes and evidence-based practice to improve quality of life. They’re also advancing the health of multicultural communities with diverse customs and needs.

“Healthcare is becoming more complex and the role of nurses has evolved along with it,” says Margaret Pharris, St. Kate’s professor and associate dean for nursing. “It takes more time to educate a nurse to care at the bedside today, whether in the hospital or in the home.” But that wasn’t always the case.

Nursing is one of the few healthcare professions in the United States that continues to offer multiple paths into the practice. Students can pursue an associate, a bachelor’s or a master’s degree to enter the field initially as a registered nurse. While the debate about minimum qualifications for entry into nursing has raged on for 40 years, U.S. nurses could rely on strong employment with as little as two years of education.

Then came a landmark report on the future of nursing by the Institute of Medicine. In 2010, an expert panel recommended increasing the number of baccalaureate-prepared nurses in the workforce to 80 percent and doubling the population of nurses with graduate degrees by 2020. Both levels of preparation are considered “necessary to move the nursing workforce to an expanded set of competencies.” Every nurse was encouraged to advance her or his degree to the next highest level. Because of this report, many employers have made a bachelor’s degree in nursing the minimum credential for employment as a registered nurse.

“It has been acceptable to have an associate degree in nursing to begin practicing,” says Penelope Moyers, dean of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health at St. Catherine University, “but now it’s clear that the complexity of the profession requires a higher skill level and the ability to meet more demanding competencies to even enter the field.”

Clinical sites, which give students required hands-on experience, have also expressed priority of accepting students who are working toward baccalaureate or graduate degrees, as these are the nurses they plan to hire in the future.

“We’re seeing a gradual decline in valuable acute care clinical experiences for those seeking an associate degree in nursing,” says Pharris. “Major health systems can no longer promise us clinical placements for associate degree students two years down the road.”


St. Kate’s, a leader in nursing education for more than 125 years, views the market shift as an opportunity to renew its leadership in healthcare education by remodeling its degree programs.

“With industry being more reluctant to hire associate degree [AD] nurses and our partners reporting they’re going to restrict the availability of clinical sites, we had to step back and look at how we could offer AD nurses a legitimate educational experience,” says Anne Weyandt ’83, dean of the College for Applied and Continuing Learning (CACL). “If we can’t give students the experience to actually apply theoretical concepts and practical skill in real-life settings, then the education we’re offering them is incomplete.”

The University has replaced what had been a pre-nursing sequence for its AD in nursing with a more comprehensive Associate of Science in Health Science degree. The new program is designed to prepare students for bachelor’s programs in nursing and in a variety of health fields, from nutrition and exercise science to public health. Nursing, however, remains a popular St. Kate’s major with competitive admissions.

“The nursing profession is changing; that’s why educational programs have to change,” says Moyers, “and that’s why so many associate degree nurses are coming back to St. Kate’s for the RN-to-BS degree completion. Nurses all over the country are pursuing baccalaureate degree completion in record numbers.”

St. Kate’s Henrietta Schmoll School of Health (HSSH) offers both a “hybrid” (on site-online) and fully online RN-BS Degree Completion program for women and men in the CACL, in addition to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in the College of Women, and master’s and doctoral degrees in nursing within the Graduate College. Meanwhile, the HSSH is developing a new Bachelor of Science in Nursing for adult learners on the Minneapolis campus, with a holistic health focus and a potential launch in 2017.

The University will admit its final classes for AD in nursing this fall (day program) and spring 2016 (evening program).

“Phasing out our AD program doesn’t diminish what we’ve done in the past.” says Pharris. “We have a tradition of providing high-quality nursing education; the students we have graduated in this program are strong. They are excellent nurses who have taken their profession seriously and their individual skills to new levels.”


St. Kate’s new Associate of Science in Health Science runs on the Minneapolis campus in the fall, spring and summer semesters. Students can complete the program in two years or less, depending on previous college credits. They can also add a certificate option, like phlebotomy, to increase employability. Then, with an associate degree in hand, they may transition into one of St. Kate’s healthcare majors at the baccalaureate level. Students can complete the degrees in one stretch or take breaks between them.

“This isn’t just another associate degree,” Weyandt notes. “Our health science degree is a smart way to prepare for the bachelor’s degree, which is steadily becoming the golden ticket into a healthcare job.”

Nurses with bachelor’s degrees can continue to “ladder” — or earn successive master’s and doctoral degrees — at St. Kate’s to boost their credentials and job prospects. The same goes for students who earn bachelor’s degrees in occupational science/pre-occupational therapy and pre-physical therapy. The University offers seamless laddering in both these fields as well (a Master of Arts in Occupational Therapy and a Doctor of Physical Therapy).

“We really want people to graduate not only with their associate degree in health science, but to realize that education is lifelong, that they will come back for baccalaureate and graduate education,” says Moyers. “This model — a much more deliberate preparation for a lifetime of education — is a very big transition for the Minneapolis campus. In the past, we would have said, ‘Here’s your associate degree. Now, go get a job.’”

Since becoming health school dean in 2011, Moyers has a track record of introducing or retooling the University’s healthcare programs. St. Kate’s is among the first institutions of its size in the United States to offer a baccalaureate major in public health and the first to introduce an online occupational therapy assistant program (see sidebar). Pharmacy is now among seven pre-professional options. The Physician Assistant Studies program graduated its first class this past December.

“People know us for our excellent nursing programs,” says Moyers. “But St Kate’s is healthcare education — with very strong programs in nursing. Our School of Health integrates 30-plus disciplines. This is a distinct advantage. Most schools of health have a handful of programs and, often, place nursing off by itself in its own school. At St. Kate’s, we can move the practice of healthcare in a way that’s pretty focused, particularly in terms of interprofessional practice and collaboration.”

Just what the world of healthcare needs today. So, sure, modern medicine and healthcare delivery are demanding a highly educated workforce. But that’s St. Kate’s strength: preparing informed professionals who, by the way, also lead and influence



“Our [associate] health science degree is a smart way to prepare for the bachelor’s degree, which is steadily becoming the golden ticket into a healthcare job.”



Healthcare Education Goes Viral

The 18 students in St. Kate’s online Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA)-Virginia program “are doing really well,” reports Penelope Moyers, dean of the School of Health. So much so, that the University is expanding it to other states, beginning with California.

The 16-month program — the first of its kind in the United States — combines online didactic courses with hands-on lab and fieldwork in healthcare facilities.

“It’s a great example of how technology can change the way healthcare education is delivered,” says Moyers. “In the past, the curriculum had to be taught ‘live’ in a classroom because occupational therapy is a hands-on profession. This assumption is being challenged. Faculty can now model practice through video and live chats and demonstrations, which makes this program more accessible.”




>> READ about the first Physician Assistant Studies class.

>> DOWNLOAD The Institute of Medicine report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.

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