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In a profession where greater knowledge leads to better quality of care, nurses are headed back to school to obtain more credentials.
According to a report from the Institute of Medicine titled "The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health," the nursing profession is the largest segment of the nation's health care workforce with more than 3 million members.
An evolving health care system has prompted nurses to ensure they are well-prepared to offer care. These professionals are looking to advance themselves: Licensed practical nurses are seeking to become registered nurses, while registered nurses are aspiring to become nurse practitioners.
Students are told that an associate degree is not the end point, says Jeanine Santelli, professor and chairwoman of the department of nursing at Nazareth College of Rochester. In the beginning, nurses are prepared for a license and get into the workforce, but they need to think about moving on and obtaining further education, experts say.
Priscilla Belluccio, currently working toward an associate degree to become a registered nurse at Monroe Community College, worked as a home health aide by day and was a licensed practical nurse student by night. A patient told Belluccio she would make a great nurse, which set her on a path to higher education.
"The more I know, the more I can help others learn what I have learned. Furthering your education is always a good idea," Belluccio says.
Kathy Rideout, interim dean and associate professor of clinical nursing at the University of Rochester's School of Nursing, says that as nurses proceed to higher education, their learning not only results in professional advancement but also leads to better patient outcomes.
Once in the workforce, Rideout says, it is important to continue with education. UR has roughly 500 students across all its programs and continues to see enrollment grow each year.
In health care, patient care has become more complex than it used to be and patient safety is a big concern.
Cheryl Mahoney, associate professor and chairwoman of the department of nursing at Monroe Community College, says people are living longer with chronic illnesses, so nurses must not only participate in treating acutely ill people but also help them to stay well.
Monroe Community College has 325 nursing students. Mahoney encourages students to stay hopeful in spite of waiting lists for admission. She notes that licensed practical nurses are applying to become registered nurses earlier, partly because of hospitals' needs and the acuity of patient care. A lot of hospitals are encouraging and in some cases mandating that these nurses go back to school to become registered nurses.
A growing number of students are moving in that direction. Nazareth College has 190 nursing students, including several who have come back to become registered nurses, Santelli says. The nursing curriculum is being molded to be current and reflect health care today and in the future.
While further education is encouraged, colleges and universities here and across the nation are struggling to meet the challenge of an aging faculty. Limited numbers of faculty and clinical sites affect the number of students these institutions can train.
Still, the lure of being a nurse is obvious to Mahoney. A lifelong career, it is intellectually demanding, and nurses must think about what they are doing without relying on automatic performance.
"R.N. school has helped solidify my nursing knowledge and heightened my confidence in my skills," Belluccio says. "The instructors challenge us in the ways we need to be challenged to become better nurses."
Alex Moy, in his third semester in UR's accelerated program, did not always want to be a nurse. He first obtained a degree at UR to start a career in engineering.
Challenging times-being in the hospital with family members and being a patient himself after a car accident-made Moy reconsider his choice. After witnessing a high level of care and respect, Moy was inspired to choose a career in nursing. He hopes to advance in this field, going beyond the role of registered nurse to become an advanced practitioner, whether as a nurse practitioner, nurse specialist or professor.
Rideout says that in addition to having higher salaries, nurse practitioners are able to diagnose, treat and prescribe in their specialty field. They can also fill the gaps in primary care when there are increasing numbers of patients to care for. Nurses with this level of education fill the role of primary-care provider more than ever before.
Nurses are important because they directly interact with patients; without nurses, physicians or health care instructors would not be very successful, Moy says. Nurses are an integral part of patient care, and he hopes nurses will get more autonomy and greater influence in determining what is in a patient's best interest.
Deb Paul, who has been a registered nurse with a master's degree for more than six years at Strong Memorial Hospital's cardiac unit, recently accepted a position at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center as a thoracic/head, neck and throat nurse practitioner. She completed two nurse practitioner programs.
"As a nurse practitioner," Paul says, "I will be able to not only assess patients, but will be able to diagnose, plan their treatment and evaluate their outcomes. I will be able to prescribe medications and follow their care. This aspect of being a nurse practitioner is exciting to me."
In December, Belluccio will earn her new title as a registered nurse. She believes licensed practical nurses are valuable in all health care arenas, but according to laws on the scope of practice, only registered nurses can take the nursing process further to make official assessments. With an educational goal to become a nurse practitioner, she knows additional education will be of benefit to the patients she serves.
Crystal Gulian is a Rochester-area freelance writer.11/9/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.