Bio: Casey Shillam at WWU helps turn RNs into advanced-degree practitioners

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 17, 2014 

 2 14 mag Shillam

Casey Shillam, Director of the School of Nursing at Western Washington University, laughs with her class during a personality traits group discussion in a RN-to-BSN class on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 in Bellingham. The class is in groups according to Meyers-Briggs test and explain what they like and don't like about the opposite personality traits and how to work with them.

ANDY BRONSON — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Western Washington University's revitalized nursing program will graduate its inaugural class of 24 students in fall quarter 2014.

Four men and 20 women entered the program as registered nurses and are working toward their bachelors of science degrees in the field. The "RN-to-BSN" program began in autumn 2013 and is the first time that Western has offered nursing courses since the 1980s.

Casey R. Shillam, the program's new director, says health care today requires more and better-educated nurses. While an RN with a two-year associate's degree can deliver excellent one-on-one patient care, she says, a BSN can evaluate health care organizations and improve quality and safety of care overall.

"Organizations with more BSN nurses have fewer adverse events," she says. "The BSN gives them skills to understand a research article and translate it into care that results in better outcomes for patients."

With new technology and health care reforms underway, more roles in management and organization leadership are becoming available to BSN nurses, Shillam says.

"Having a bachelor's degree enables them to do a number of things, including going on to grad school," she says.

Nurses with post-graduate degrees can teach at community colleges or universities, and thus help meet the burgeoning demand for nursing instructors. It's estimated that Washington state will have a deficit of 12,000 nurses by the year 2031.

By 2020, eight-out-of-10 nurses are expected to have a bachelor of science in nursing. Today, 51 percent of registered nurses in Washington have the degree. The figure is 45 percent for Whatcom, Skagit, and Island counties.

Before launching the program, Western evaluated community needs and then collaborated with area clinics, hospitals and other health organizations to develop the curriculum. The state approved the program in early 2013, and the university is looking forward to accreditation in autumn 2014. National accreditation requires that students be enrolled at least a year.

Shillam says exceptional community involvement makes the program unique, with input from community and technical colleges, PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, Whatcom County Health Department and the Whatcom Alliance for Healthcare Access, among others.

"They're so invested!" she says. "This is a program that links education to practice, and education at Western to education at Whatcom Community College."

Shillam is excited about the inaugural class, a mix of experienced nurses and new associate-degree graduates. Out of 45 applicants, 35 were chosen, but several couldn't attend for financial reasons. The program runs five academic quarters and costs $14,000 to $16,000.

"It's a priority to start a development campaign for scholarships," Shillam says.

She moved to Bellingham with her husband, Bryrick Shillam, and her young son, Graylon, in the summer of 2013 from Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in Baltimore. She holds a doctorate in nursing from Oregon Health & Science University School of Nursing in Portland.

Her husband, who sold his business before the move, is a woodworker who recently built a 17-foot dory. She and her family look forward to hiking, cycling and boating in and around Bellingham.

"Bellingham is a close-knit community that gets things done," Shillam says. "Bellingham reminds me of Portland. It's full of art and culture. Everything you'd want in a big city is here. I like that it's on a smaller scale."

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