A Degree of Progress Elms College Launches Master’s Program in Nursing

It’s a vicious circle, one that Elms College hopes to straighten out.

The shortage of nurses across the U.S. and in Massachusetts has been a problem for much of the past decade, with a generation of older nurses retiring or preparing to retire at a faster clip than young nurses are entering the workforce — all at a time when people are living longer than ever before, often with chronic conditions that require ongoing medical care.

It’s also a trend that is expected to accelerate, with a recent study by the Mass. Assoc. of Colleges of Nursing anticipating a statewide 25,000-nurse shortage by 2020 — about three times the shortfall today. Meanwhile, the national shortage projection for 2020 is a staggering 340,000.

There’s an irony to the situation, however. Since the shortage has been on national media radar, colleges that offer nursing programs have, virtually across the board, reported a spike in interest from applicants looking to train for what has become one of the most secure careers available. However, many of those schools are turning applicants away at an alarming rate, or at best wait-listing them — because of a shortage of nursing faculty to teach them.

Elms College in Chicopee has taken a proactive approach, albeit one that will take a few years to bear fruit. It has instituted a new master’s degree program in nursing, which consists of two tracks: a master’s in Nursing Education, a 36-credit program that prepares graduates to educate the next generation of nurses in a variety of settings; and a master’s in Nursing and Health Services Management, a 42-credit program aimed at creating a stream of nurse managers.

Each track will enroll between 15 and 20 students at a time. In addition, two 12-credit certificate programs will also be offered in each of the specialty areas.

Kathleen Scoble, director of Nursing at the Elms, said modern nurses need to be equipped with both clinical and business skills, and to that end, the new master’s programs will be taught by an interdisciplinary faculty from nursing, business, and education.

“Elms College has a strong history of responding to changes and needs in the community, the educational environment, and particularly the health care community,” Scoble said. “We acknowledge and share our health care community’s need to prepare nurses for leadership and management roles, and as nurse educators.”

Mary Tarbell, acting dean of Nursing at Springfield Technical Community College, said hospital patients are sicker, on average, than they used to be, noting that a gallbladder removal is now an outpatient procedure, when it used to require an overnight stay. Meanwhile, patients now listed as critically ill would not have survived a generation ago.

Such situations require specialized skills, which is why hospitals and other organizations fret that a shortage of nurse leaders and managers — and the expected further exodus of those nearing retirement age — has made it difficult to properly train and support less-experienced nurses.

Both nursing professors and nurse managers are among the nursing careers that require post-graduate degrees, and Elms administrators say the college is meeting a real need.

“We need significantly greater numbers of nursing faculty and also nursing leaders and managers,” Scoble said. “We’ve heard of high vacancy rates in management positions. This is an attempt to increase those numbers.”

The two tracks are complementary in many ways, she noted, because nursing education does not have to end with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. In fact, she said, while studies have shown a relationship between the continuing education of a nursing workforce and improved patient care, many acute-care hospitals in Western Mass. have reported low levels of baccalaureate- and master’s-prepared nurses.

The shortage has played out in measurable ways locally, said Mary Brunton, director of Patient Care Services at Baystate Medical Center, who said her hospital has experienced growing waits in the Emergency Department due to more and sicker patients.

That’s one of the factors that led to Baystate’s planned $239 million expansion, which will require an influx of nurses — including those with advanced degrees — well beyond the average 100 or so Baystate has hired annually in recent years to keep pace with retirements and patient needs.

“We anticipate needing many more nurses after we open this building,” Brunton said, noting that the Elms master’s program will help students find quality career opportunities at Baystate down the road. “This is beneficial not just to these students, but to us.”

At the Elms, that means fewer applicants languishing on waiting lists and, eventually, more key jobs being filled at facilities throughout Western Mass.

“All programs in our area have had to deal with this shortage, with positions going unfilled,” said Cynthia Dakin, associate professor of Nursing at the Elms. “Whether big or small, everyone is feeling the same crunch.”