JOLIET – Renee Popek is going back to college – no easy thing for a working nurse with three children.
But Popek, 38, who works in the surgery unit at Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center, knows she’ll be better off for it.
“I want to go on and pursue my master’s degree, too, and eventually teach,” said Popek, who starts at Lewis University in the fall through its registered nursing to bachelor of science nursing program – specifically designed for working nurses who want to earn a degree in nursing.
RN to BSN programs are designed to give registered nurses opportunities to attain BSN degrees – a route that often leads to higher leadership roles, higher pay and a broader understanding of a nurse’s role in the health care industry.
Popek isn’t required by her workplace to get a BSN, but moving forward, new hires at Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center will, a result of the latest contract negotiations that wrapped up earlier this year.
Presence Saint Joseph is teaming up with Lewis University and the University of St. Francis to offer RN to BSN programs this fall for employees wanting to obtain their BSN degrees. Flexible scheduling, online classes and on-site classes are key components.
There were discussions this spring during the contract negotiations about requiring new hires – and current employees – to obtain their BSN degrees, said Lisa Lagger, spokeswoman for the hospital. But in the end, the negotiated three-year contract, which affects 800 nurses and new hires, only requires new hires to obtain a BSN within three years of their hire date.
John Fitzgerald, an organizer with the Illinois Nurses Association previously involved with contract negotiations, said union representatives weren’t willing to accept the hospital’s suggestion that all nurses – current and future – obtain a BSN degree.
“The INA has taken the stance that generally, a BSN for current employees is not necessary, but we understand that’s the way it’s going. Education is good, but experience is more important,” Fitzgerald said. “During contract negotiations, we weren’t willing to … force a whole bunch of nurses to get additional education [by 2020] just to keep their job.”
But what’s happening at Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center is not unique. There’s been a movement among health care employers nationally to require that nurses either return to school for their bachelor’s degrees or have a BSN before applying.
About half of the nation’s 3 million registered nurses in 2008 had a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. But a 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine recommended hospitals nationwide raise that percentage to 80 percent by 2020.
Just less than half of Presence Saint Joseph’s 800 nurses have a BSN degree while others are diploma nurses or have associate or master’s degrees.
Jackie Medland, chief nurse executive for the hospital, said she hopes the road to obtaining a BSN becomes a “natural wave of enthusiasm” where a higher degree of educational preparation “becomes the norm.”
“We want to create an environment by which our nurses want to go and get more educated,” Medland said.
In the past four years alone, there’s been an estimated 86 percent increase in the annual number of RN-BSN graduates, according to a 2014 workforce analysis by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Hospitals have increasingly gone as far as closing their doors to any nurse who doesn’t already have a BSN degree, Medland said. While Presence Saint Joseph’s hiring policies have become “more fine-tuned,” they have not closed the door entirely on nurses without such a degree, she said.
“We’re not there yet. We’ve chosen not to take that approach yet, but for anyone who reads the tea leaves, again, you got to have your baccalaureate degree to come into an acute care setting, a very demanding, complex care setting, whether it’s [Presence Saint Joseph] or any other setting,” Medland said. “It’s going to be the new standard within the next couple of years for most, if not all, organizations in the Chicago metro area.”
Dr. Carol Wilson, dean of the School of Nursing at University of St. Francis, said enrollment in these RN to BSN programs has risen over the years, in part because of the release of several studies linking better-educated nurses with better patient care and lower mortality rates.
The university’s RN to BSN program started in the late 1990s, she said, and since then enrollment has steadily risen. There were 68 students in 2004 and 116 in 2014. In 2012, 140 students enrolled in the program, in part because of the findings in the Institute of Medicine’s 2010 report, Wilson said.
In offering the RN to BSN program, Lewis University holds 12 classes throughout the Chicago area, including in Joliet at Presence Saint Joseph. That allows students with the flexibility to attend classes near work and home, said Linda Elsik, director of the program.
Classes will be held at the hospital beginning this October or in the spring, making life a little easier for the 10 or nurses at Presence Saint Joseph signed up to take the program, she said.
Becoming a better nurse
Better-educated nurses have been linked with better patient care and lower mortality rates, Medland said, noting traditional nursing education only focuses on practical, task-oriented skills while BSN programs teach more about public health and theory.
“When you look at our nurses who are practicing at the bedside, who are with patients and families 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they are the least educated,” Medland said.
Stacy Baker, 31, a nurse at Presence Saint Joseph, graduated in 2010 from Lewis University’s RN to BSN program.
In the university’s partnership with the hospital, many classes were held on-site and the hospital provided tuition reimbursements, Baker said, making the transition into a BSN much easier than if she had pursued it on her own.
“It would have been crazy not to take advantage of it,” she said.
Elise Roberts, who started as a nurse at the hospital in 2010, is working toward her BSN at the University of St. Francis.
Classes so far have made a “world of difference” in her ability to treat patients, she said. She was surprised to have learned so much about patient care through a theology class.
“I was like, ‘Theology? Do I really need theology to be a better nurse?’ But you do,” Roberts said. “It’s not just about giving medications on time. It’s not calling in critical labs. It’s really trying to treat the patient spiritually, too. Unfortunately, you don’t get that in your associate degree.”