Helping by degrees: Mesa State nursing programs respond to health care needs

Much has been reported about the shortage of primary care physicians in Mesa County. Even as the county and nation wring their collective hands over the bubble of aging baby boomers, the medical community worries about the prospects of meeting demand for primary care providers for seniors.

Such concerns have led to a cooperative effort to launch both master’s and doctoral degree programs for nurses at Mesa State College in Grand Junction.

The master of science degree in nursing and doctor of nursing practice programs are scheduled to begin in January. The master of science degree provides graduates with skills needed for management or teaching nursing students. The doctoral program is designed for nurses who want to become family nurse practitioners.

As is the case with cooperative efforts that created a nationally publicized health care system in Mesa County, the post-graduate nursing programs are the result of meetings involving health care professionals, educators and community leaders. The Mesa County Health Care Development Council features such members as former Hilltop chief executive officer Sally Schaefer and Rocky Mountain Health Plans CEO Steve ErkenBrack. Both were instrumental in putting together a health care system recognized by President Barack Obama during a visit to Grand Junction last summer. From local hospitals to a local insurance company to a local association of doctors, the input has come from many arenas. “It’s the community,” says Kristy Reuss, head of the health sciences program at Mesa State.

Reuss says the Quality Health Network, through which local doctors monitor each others’ treatments and charges, offers an example of how Mesa County medical professionals work to provide a system recognized for offering high quality care at lower costs.

Input also came from Primary Care Partners, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership and Marillac Clinic. St. Mary’s Hospital helped fund a student loan program for graduate students. Community Hospital was involved in the talks as well.

“The timing is right for these programs for a lot of reasons,” Reuss says.

Cooperative efforts resulted in the identification of two primary reasons for the graduate programs: Many nursing professionals who have master’s degrees are on the verge of retirement. Mid-level administrators who possess nursing degrees want more education to perform better and increase their pay.

Still another reason comes from the education side of the equation. “In order to have good nurses, they need qualified faculty,” Reuss says.

Master’s and doctoral programs provide the means to graduate more teachers for college nursing programs. In Western Colorado alone, institutions that will require more teachers include Mesa State, Western Colorado Community College, the Delta-Montrose Technical College and Colorado Mountain College.

A portion of the demand for teachers could be filled by retired nurses, but many retirees are reticent to work for less than they earned during their nursing careers, Reuss says.

In addition to earning post-graduate degrees in nursing, nurses can find other programs that can be a match at Mesa State. For example, a nurse practitioner with a doctoral degree might decide to go into business.

“Many are providing care at clinics,” Reuss says. Such practitioners often work on a contract basis and might have an interest in setting up their own offices with staffs, overhead and other issues that come with owning a business. Such interest could lead to pursuit of a master’s in business administration degree, which Mesa State has offered for 11 years. In fact, the business department is working on plans for an entrepreneurship class that focuses on medical businesses.

Being a nurse practitioner is “more than just looking at tonsils,” Reuss says. Regulations, payment structures and legal guidelines are all important parts of the business and require education.

The need for nurses who can provide clinical care could grow along with demand for medical care. Doctors in Mesa County reportedly have more openings for patients than they did a couple of years ago, but local health care experts believe the openings are a temporary condition resulting from a downturn in the natural gas industry that forced some patients to leave the area. Predictions of an ever-increasing local population have the health community scrambling for ways to meet expected demand. One part of the solution can be nurses who take some pressure off doctors by performing such services as taking blood pressure readings and filling prescriptions at outpatient clinics.

For those interested in obtaining training to teach nursing students, the college offers undergraduate and graduate teaching programs. The need for instructors is great, as college programs turn away qualified students every year due to limits on enrollment in medical programs.

Five years ago, the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence released a study indicating the shortage of qualified nursing faculty at two-year nursing schools in Colorado was three times the national average. The shortage at four-year colleges in the state was nearly double the national average. The center  supports partnerships to enhance the nursing and health care work force in the state.

There’s a good chance the number of qualified students will increase over the next couple of decades, placing further pressure to hire more teachers. The under-20 group outnumbered the 45- to 64-year old generation 82.7 million to 78.1 million in a Census Bureau estimate from 2008.

The college is already planting seeds in the minds of some future nurses and doctors. For the past five years, Mesa State has sponsored a so-called MASH camp for middle school students in Mesa County School District 51. The idea is to introduce young people to health care professions, present them a sampling of what careers are available in the industry and give them a taste of the math and science skills required for various medical occupations.

If colleges could train more students and send them through graduate programs, they could help fill the anticipated growing demand for medical professionals. As of June 2009, 20 percent of Colorado’s hospital work force was older than 55 compared to just 9 percent in 1993, according to the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence.

In addition to trying to replace retiring nurses, an expanded national health care program and aging boomer population promise to combine to further increase demand for nurses and doctors.

The center for nursing excellence provides this perspective in a report published in March: “The health care work force ‘pipeline’ must be sufficient during the next decade to replace retiring health care employees as they shift from providers to consumers of health care services, support an additional 1 million Colorado residents and provide health care for an additional 500,000 over-65 residents.”
There’s also little doubt nurses and other medical professionals pump money into a local economy. The average annual salary of $42,900 for the health care and social services sector trails only professional and technical services in salary rankings from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. More than one in 10 Coloradans work in health care and the proportion is expected to increase over the next decade.

Graduates of medical programs at Mesa State can enter the work force at various levels, including a medical office assistant who also performs laboratory work, a medical technician or medical technologist.

“I think that health care is a huge part of the economy locally,” Reuss says.

As Mesa State College implements new nursing degree programs, it plans to hire two faculty members and team them with two current members. The college will be the only educational institution in Western Colorado offering graduate nursing programs.

Reuss says 93 percent of Mesa State nursing students surveyed last year indicated they want to obtain a graduate degree. “More and more people are coming to school with that as their end goal.”

And the college hopes graduate programs can be one more step in its efforts to match new programs with work force demands.

The refurbished Maverick Center on the Mesa State College campus in Grand Junction houses classrooms for the health sciences program. Mesa State plans to launch master’s and doctoral nursing degree programs in January as part of an effort to meet demand for health care professionals and nursing school faculty. (Business Times photo by Mike Moran)

One Response to "Helping by degrees: Mesa State nursing programs respond to health care needs"

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