Another Voice: Online education can boost the nursing workforce | Opinion


Erie County’s push to add hundreds of new healthcare workers has been noticed by the White House — and for good reason.

Funded in part by the American Rescue Plan, the county’s Healthcare Careers Grant Program, which provides $10,000 in educational training for aspiring healthcare workers, will enroll nearly 400 residents in its first year.

But we must not stop there. Buffalo and surrounding areas — both populous and rural communities in Western New York — have felt the effects of nursing shortages, exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. Further interventions are needed to avert a shortage of nurses over the next decade, as highlighted by the Department of Health in its August 2020 report on staff nurse staffing. The report noted a projected shortfall of 39,000 registered nurses by 2030, complicated by recruitment challenges and a plethora of rural nurses reaching retirement age.

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Without education, there is no pipeline. Erie County is right to tackle it head-on, partnering with excellent, well-respected educational institutions to lower the cost of nursing education programs.

But affordability isn’t the only obstacle. Location and lack of free time – especially for people with major work or care responsibilities – are also factors. These are harder to remove through traditional educational programs. We need to look for ways to support nurses by reimagining post-licensure training options. A relatively new approach is to use online skills-based education – pioneered by Western Governors University in 1997 – which measures skill proficiency rather than time spent in class.

Tens of thousands of nurses across the country have graduated from competency-based programs. This model can also help keep rural residents in their communities. Because rural students—including existing RNs who must meet New York’s requirement to earn a bachelor’s degree within 10 years of licensure—wouldn’t have to uproot themselves to a large population center to their education makes them more easily hired or retained by their hometown health care providers. This can be a game-changer for regions like Dunkirk, which have felt the effects of city-based employers competing in the same talent pool.

Curricular innovations such as competency-based online degree programs have been proven and can work in New York. It is critical that we increase accessibility to nursing education to ensure communities in Western New York are equipped with proper care.

Rebecca L. Watts is the Northeast Regional Vice President of Western Governors University.

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