New WWU program prepares nurses for future of health care

Although Carla Norris and her daughter Carrie Holtrop were both working nurses, they realized their nursing education was far from over.

Norris and Holtrop went back to school last year to earn a bachelor of science in nursing degree at Western Washington University. On Saturday, Dec. 13, the mother and daughter will be part of the first cohort to graduate from Western’s RN-to-BSN program that began last fall.

The program gives registered nurses the opportunity to work full time while earning a BSN degree that is increasingly becoming necessary. Norris, from Marysville, and Holtrop, from Ferndale, will graduate with 22 other nurses.

“This program is really looking at the future of nursing and the future of leaders in nursing,” Norris said.

Norris is a nurse at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, and she said the hospital is requiring all nurses to get their bachelor’s degree.

In 2010, the Institute of Medicine published a report that recommended 80 percent of nurses earn a baccalaureate degree by 2020, and the report said, “a more educated nursing workforce would be better equipped to meet the demands of an evolving health care system.”

Western officials have said that just 51 percent of the state’s nursing work force is baccalaureate prepared, and the figure for Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties is at 45 percent.

“With all the changes in the Affordable Care Act and the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations, I think it’s made a huge difference in the way programs are now designed,” Norris said. “We need more nurses that have advanced degrees, and this program is serving the community because there isn’t another university in the area (offering a similar program).”

Casey Shillam, director of the RN-to-BSN program through Woodring College of Education at WWU, said the program gives students the tools to lead the transformation of the health care system. A major part of that, she said, is the likelihood that nurses with BSN degrees will go on to graduate school and become teachers, which faculties all over the nation need.

“We turn away thousands of qualified applicants every year because we don’t have enough spaces available, because we don’t have enough nursing faculty,” Shillam said.

Norris said she plans to earn her master’s degree at the University of Washington and potentially go into teaching.

Her daughter, Holtrop, who had been a part-time nurse, got a full-time job at St. Joseph hospital while enrolled in Western’s BSN program, and said other classmates also got jobs when employers found out they were in the BSN program. She credits all of the work the class did with connecting the students to community leaders. It’s often hard for undergraduates to get their foot in the door, she said.

The curriculum is different than what nurses see in their pre-licensure schooling, Shillam said. There is a greater emphasis on community involvement and care coordination, areas that are emerging as more important than previously thought in the field, Shillam said. The classes meet one day a week for a total of five quarters.

“I think it’s totally changed the way I look at patients. Before, I looked at each patient that was having a surgery, and now I look at all the parts of that patient: how they live at home, how their health is affecting them, how it’s affecting their family, and just kind of the outside resources that we can help with,” Norris said.

Shillam expects the program to continue to grow. The goal is to have class sizes of 30 each year, and to extend the program with classes in the northern areas of the county. For now, the first graduating class has given the program a great start.

“They have really embraced the newness of the program and understood their important role,” Shillam said. “They are advancing the health of the community.”