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Grow your own nurse leaders

Alexandra Wilson Pecci, for HealthLeaders Media, May 15, 2012

Nurse leaders are hard to come by. The solution? Create them yourself.

That's the strategy of UnitedHealth Group's Center for Nursing Advancement, which is launching a fully-funded online RN-to-MSN degree program in which about 30 associate's degree-level RNs will get their master's degrees. The pilot program, which launches this fall, will focus on business and leadership education, says Dawn Bazarko, DNP, MPH, RN, Senior Vice President for UnitedHealth's Center for Nursing Advancement.

"There is such a demand now for nurse leaders and it's hard to hire for," she tells HealthLeaders. "So we are taking a position that there's a need to grow our own, frankly, for lack of a better word, and this is one of our strategic programs to do just that."

Taking its cue from the Institute of Medicine's landmark Future of Nursing report, published in 2010, the focus of UnitedHealth's program is leadership and the idea that "in order for us to meet the demands of the changing healthcare system in our country, we need to better prepare nurses," says Bazarko.

Participants receive education on

  • communication
  • finance
  • change management
  • disease prevention
  • multicultural wellness strategies
  • pharmacology and patient safety;
  • patient care technology;
  • leadership and management;
  • policy, law, and ethics

And nurse leaders will learn how to be educators themselves. Bazarko says the "shortage of faculty and clinical environments to prepare nurse educators" is among the fundamental barriers around training nurses and nurse leaders. With that in mind, graduates of the new program will be also prepared to serve in adjunct faculty roles, if they choose.

"The education that they receive will help these nurses form an executive mindset so they're prepared to move into greater leadership roles in our company," she says. "We'll enhance their business skills and produce new leaders."

The program will be completely funded by UnitedHealth Group, which employs more than 10,000 nurses in 43 states, and will go above and beyond the company's typical tuition reimbursement. Since participants reside all over the country, the three-year program, which is accredited through the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, will be offered completely online (with the exception of a required 500-hour preceptorship) through a partnership with Capella University.

In addition to making the program accessible to participants in different locales, offering the program online answers another accessibility question for students who also work full time.

"We need to really address the barriers and accessibility for adult learners and I think online education is a perfect way to do that. And it will be a great way for us to bring it to the nursing workforce," Bazarko says.

Although not every organization has the ability to fully fund a program like this, there are certainly take-aways for other organizations. Bazarko says in the future, fewer nurses will be serving at the bedside; instead, their practice will take them down other paths, such as telemedicine, education, or public health. Therefore, today's nurse leaders "have to shift from the traditional paradigm of how we think of nursing and the nurse brand and the roles that nurses play." 

"All of us as nurse leaders have to take step back and check own biases and filters around [whether we are] really thinking about our workforce and ensuring that we're laying a path for the future and organizing our initiatives that way," she says.

UnitedHealth's MSN program will launch in October, and Bazarko says since the company is treating it as a pilot project (applicants haven't even been selected yet), it's too soon to tell whether they'll offer it again. But she hopes it will become an ongoing program if its first run is a success. She also hopes it will shine a light on the need for developing the next generation of nurse leaders.

"I think what it will serve to do is identify another best practice that can be deployed to advance educational preparation of nurses in the United States and their own organizations and help prepare nurses to drive change," she says.

Source: HealthLeaders Media