State receives $1.6M for high-tech training

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The Pike’s Peak Workforce Development Center is part of a statewide $1.6 million grant initiative designed to address Colorado’s nursing shortage by focusing on innovative, high-tech methods of teaching, creating additional nursing faculty and reaching student nurses across the state.

The state’s nursing shortage stands at 11 percent, but could grow to 30 percent in the next 15 years, according to the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence. The grant, administered by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and the center, seeks to change the trend by creating a new teaching initiative.

“It’s really a statewide effort,” said Elise Lowe-Vaughn, project coordinator at the department. “We’re working with community colleges and hospitals. It’s very exciting to see competitors working together, with the government, to make this happen.”

For its part, the workforce center is providing $20,000 scholarships to three area colleges to provide financial incentives for nursing instructors to continue their own education, said Paula Butcher, operations manager.

“According to new education guidelines, nursing instructors must have a master’s degree by 2008,” she said. “Many of them only have BSNs (bachelor’s of science degree in nursing) if they don’t get some assistance, then they will lose their jobs. We simply cannot afford to have that happen.”

Pike’s Peak Community College, the University of Phoenix and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs will all receive financial assistance. The universities receive the money and then distribute it to graduate school candidates.

Lowe-Vaughn started the grant process several years ago, after the information technology sector in Colorado began laying off workers. The effort was to identify areas of need within the state and retrain workers to fill those needs.

“Our medical health care shortage is astounding,” she said. “And it stems from the lack of available staff. This grant focuses on the quality of teaching, as well as the numbers of nurses working.”

The grant’s focal piece is the WELLS Center, which stands for Work, Education and Life-long Learning Simulation, currently housed at the Fitzsimmon campus of the University of Colorado Hospital. The Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence is helping the state identify areas where high-tech training methods will work to train nurses statewide.

While the center is located in the Denver metropolitan area, local universities and government agencies are also partners in the project, said Jana Berryman, project director for the nursing center. Representatives from UCCS, Regis University and Memorial Hospital are involved with planning for the WELLS Center.

“The WELLS Center will produce the educators that the state needs,” Berryman said. “Phase two will focus on the nursing students, creating more opportunities for them. We’re at the beginning stages now, just beginning to focus on the changes to the curricula.”

The statewide initiative will develop a “road map” to find ways to train large numbers of nurses, to prepare student nurses for the job in a more efficient and more realistic setting.

One of these tools is the Visible Human Dissector, or “slice and dice guy,” as Lowe-Vaughn calls it. This is a high-tech tool used by nursing students to simulate a patient in the hospital.

“They can give them shots and watch how the medicine enters the veins below the skin,” she said. “It’s very exciting. They can dissect the mannequin and diagnose it with diseases, then watch how their treatment works below the skin.”

The dissection tool works in tandem with clinical studies by nurses, Lowe-Vaughn said. But since very little student training time occurs in a clinical setting, often new nurses are unprepared for the workplace.

“This will reduce the training time once they’re hired,” she said. “It’s a way to work out the kinks before they start on the job – and it’s a way to reduce risk to the patients as well.”

The grant focuses on new methods of delivering high-quality education to nursing students, Berryman said. In addition to new high-tech, hands-on models, the WELLS Center will also provide virtual classes – courtesy of Rocky Mountain PBS.

The television station agreed to use its digital television transmissions to allow students to take classes via their television sets, as well as over the Internet.

“This is a national model,” Lowe-Vaughn said. “Everyone is looking at us, to see what we can do. It’s really a whole new way of doing business. We’re very excited about it.”

Still in the initial planning phases, students won’t see the new programs in the classroom for more than a year, she said. Current efforts are focusing on curricula development and instructor training.

“One of the reasons we have such a large nursing shortage in Colorado is the lack of available faculty,” Berryman said. “So we’re starting with training the faculty, using innovative technology to reach a wider number of students. We’re assisting current nursing programs to best use technology to increase the quality of instruction, increase student competence. It’s truly about that partnership.”

The Colorado Center of Nursing Excellence is a nonprofit organization whose focus is creating partnerships to address nursing shortages and nursing education. The center will operate the WELLS Center on behalf of the state’s Department of Labor and Employment.

“We’re not ready yet for students,” Lowe-Vaughn cautions. “We’re getting there, but we are just in the planning phases. The center will open in permanent housing in May, and we just spent $1.1 million in equipment to use there. It’s a very exciting time; we’re going to close the gap in nursing education.”