The Bachelor’s: Munson wants more nurses with bachelor’s degrees, challenges colleges to provide them

Munson Medical Center, like many large hospitals across the country, is striving to boost the educational attainment of its 1,100 nurses.

But its efforts are moving slowly and are complicated by a variety of factors, including limited opportunities for registered nurses with associate’s degrees to obtain the coveted bachelor’s of science degree and the length of time necessary to upgrade the educational credentials of its workforce.

Forty-four percent of Munson’s nurses had bachelor’s degrees in 2016, up from 36 percent in in 2011. The hospital expects that percentage will increase this year, said Loraine Frank-Lightfoot, Munson’s vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer.

The other eight hospitals in the Munson Healthcare system are making their own decisions about whether to require nurses to have bachelor’s degrees, she said.

Munson wants a higher percentage of its nurses to have bachelor’s degrees to improve patient care and maintain its status as a “magnet” hospital, a designation by the American Nurses Credentialing Center that recognizes health care organizations for quality patient care, nursing excellence and innovations in professional nursing practice.

Only about 8 percent of hospitals in the United States have achieved magnet status, according to the Campaign for Action, an initiative of AARP and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The organization advocates for increasing the proportion of U.S. nurses with bachelor’s degrees to 80 percent by 2020, up from 53 percent in 2010.

“There is an overwhelming amount of literature that says there are better health outcomes” in hospitals where a high percentage of nurses have bachelor’s degrees, Frank-Lightfoot said.

In 2009, Munson required associate degree nurses to obtain bachelor’s degrees within 10 years. It moved that deadline up to five years in 2014.

Frank-Lightfoot acknowledged Munson’s requirement is “a touchy subject,” especially among veteran nurses who have been out of school for a number of years and are reluctant to go back. But she is quick to add that those nurses provide excellent care.

A spokeswoman for the Michigan Nurses Association, which does not represent Munson nurses, said the association has no position on hospitals requiring associate degree nurses to obtain bachelor’s degree in order to keep their jobs.

But such measures could result in more veteran associate degree nurses leaving the profession, exacerbating nursing shortages and resulting in nurses caring for more patients, said Sara Wallenfang, the association spokeswoman.

“There’s a ton of evidence that the nurse-patient ratio is the best indicator of patient safety and quality care,” she said.

Nevertheless, a bachelor’s degree is increasingly being required as a condition of employment by hospitals as health care grows ever more advanced.

“Some hospitals are telling us they won’t hire associate degree nurses,” said Karen Daley, dean of Davenport University’s College of Health Professions in Grand Rapids.

Davenport and Northwestern Michigan College offer an innovative program in which a bachelor’s degree in nursing in Traverse City can be achieved in three years through a concurrent enrollment at NMC and Davenport.

But it’s a small program that has graduated just nine students since it was started in 2013. Five more students are slated to graduate in May and 20 more students are working toward bachelor’s degrees.

NMC has similar arrangements with several other four-year institutions to offer Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees locally.

“NMC has been a great partner with us,” Frank-Lightfoot said.

Frank-Lightfoot, who became Munson’s chief nursing office last year, said she is in the process of compiling a list of quality online programs and cost information for nurses who need to get bachelor’s degrees.

Munson offers tuition reimbursement of $5,000 a year, enough to pay the full cost of many quality programs, she said.

NMC and other community colleges have been pushing for years to get approval from the Michigan Legislature to offer bachelor of nursing degrees on their own.

One of the reasons for the nursing shortage is that there is not enough capacity at the state’s four-year universities to meet student demand, community college leaders say.

Several years ago, lawmakers allowed the state’s 28 community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in culinary arts, maritime technology, concrete technology and energy production.

But faced with stiff opposition from the state’s 15 public universities, the Legislature has refused to let community colleges implement bachelor’s degree programs in nursing.

A state Senate bill that would have allowed such programs died without action at the end of last year’s legislative session. Another bill in the state House last year would have allowed community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in nursing.

But the bill would have stripped community colleges’ right to collect property taxes, which is the primary source of revenue for them.

The Michigan Health and Hospital Association has been supportive of allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degree programs in nursing, mainly because of a widespread nursing shortage.

“Thousands of qualified nursing students are turned away from nursing programs at Michigan universities each year due to a lack of classroom space,” said Laura Wotruba, director of public affairs at the hospital association.

“MHA believes the quality and national accreditation of the degree program is more important than where the program is provided,” she said.

NMC President Tim Nelson said he doesn’t see the Legislature changing its view on allowing community colleges to offer four-year nursing degrees anytime soon. But he said the college will continue to advocate for the authority to do so. Seventeen states allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in nursing.

“We think it’s the right thing do to,” Nelson said. “In the meantime, our job is to work with Munson and to offer our students pathways to achieve bachelor’s degrees.”