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NGCSU trains the teachers to help fill the nursing shortage
Appalachian Nurse Practitioner Clinic manager Marie Emery, left, looks at a patient chart with North Georgia College & State University second-year nursing student Anna M. Ledford on Thursday afternoon at the Dahlonega clinic.


Toni Barnett, head of the nursing program at North Georgia College & State University, talks about the effort to train more nurses.

There has been a nationwide shortage of nurses for at least two decades. But it’s not because nobody wants to be a nurse.

"You have a lot of students who want to go into nursing," said Toni Barnett, head of the nursing program at North Georgia College & State University. "We get between 400 and 600 applications a year."

But there’s a shortage of people to teach these aspiring nurses. Barnett said for clinical instruction, the ratio can’t be higher than 10 students per teacher. That limits the number of students that nursing programs can accept.

NGCSU has been trying to address this problem. In 2006, the university began a master of science in nursing education (MSNE) program, designed to train nursing instructors.

Michelle Byrne, coordinator of the MSNE program, said the first six students graduated in December 2007 and another 10 in December 2008. An additional 12 students are in their first year of the 15-month program.

Byrne said more nursing schools are beginning to offer the MSNE degree.

"There were many MSNE programs in the 1980s, and then there was an emphasis on nurse practitioner (degrees)," she said. "But now, with the faculty shortage, it’s coming back."

Barnett said the average age of a nursing faculty member is late 50s or early 60s. "In five years, you’re going to have a huge loss of experience (as they retire)," she said.

One of the first graduates of the college’s MSNE program was Elizabeth Atwood, who now teaches pediatric nursing at Brenau University. A 1995 graduate of Brenau, she had been a part-time instructor at North Georgia Technical College in Clarkesville. But she needed a master’s degree to work at a university.

"I decided I wanted to be able to teach at a higher level," she said.

Atwood said the program fit her schedule because class meets in person only once a week, and some of the coursework is done online.

"Distance learning" alternatives have helped the NGCSU nursing school to expand its reach. Last year, the university’s four nursing programs graduated more than 175 students, the largest class ever.

In addition to the MSNE, the school offers a master’s degree for family nurse practitioners, a bachelor’s degree for registered nurses and an associate’s degree in nursing.

The ASN is considered the "foot in the door" degree that allows a nurse to pursue advanced education. When a student completes the ASN, she is eligible to take her state board exams to become a registered nurse.

For each of the past two years, NGCSU has received a $200,000 economic development grant from the University System of Georgia to train more entry-level nurses.

"The state is trying to increase the number of nurses getting their initial licenses," said Barnett. "Initially we could only take 100 ASN students a year. Two years ago, we were able to take 150. This year, we took 160."

The ASN program is spread out among three sites, with 100 students at the main campus in Dahlonega, 40 at Gainesville State College, and 20 at the school’s new satellite location, at Lanier Tech in Cumming.

Barnett said the Forsyth County site has been drawing more minority students.

"We’ve really been trying to recruit students whose first language is not English (because of the demand for bilingual nurses)," she said.

NGCSU, Brenau and other nursing schools are an asset to their local communities because nearly all of their graduates take jobs in Northeast Georgia.

NGCSU also is serving the community by providing health care directly. In January 2007, using a $1.3 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, the school opened the Appalachian Nurse Practitioner Clinic, which sees about 300 patients a month.

Located on campus in the college’s Health and Natural Sciences Building, the clinic is staffed part-time by nine nurse practitioners, nearly all of whom are faculty members. Supervised by a physician, they provide primary care to patients from Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Hall, Lumpkin, White and Union counties.

The service, by appointment only, is free to patients whose income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Those whose income is higher pay a small fee.

"The patients are very appreciative," said Grace Newsome, project director of the clinic. "Most are working poor, with minimum-wage jobs and no insurance."

The clinic serves a vital need in the community, but it’s also an educational tool.

"I think it’s tremendously helpful (for the students)," Newsome said. "We have some nurse practitioner students doing preceptorships. We have associate’s degree students doing intake and other (nonclinical) tasks. Also, some students work in our mobile van doing (health) screenings."

Barnett said in today’s economy, the clinic has become even more important to low-income residents.

"We’re the only provider that they have other than the ER," she said.