Mercy, Mount Mercy announce partnership to help nursing shortage

This article was originally published by Michaela Ramm on The Gazette on Mar, 2022.

CEDAR RAPIDS — Mount Mercy University and Mercy Medical Center have announced a partnership to give nursing students hands-on career experience while helping the Cedar Rapids-based health system meet staffing needs.

The MercyReady Nursing Education Assistance Program launched this month to provide financial assistance and part-time hospital jobs to Mount Mercy students completing their nursing degrees. Upon graduation, nursing students will become full-time staff at the hospital as a registered nurse, a position they must keep for at least two years under the program’s requirements.

“We’re really excited about with this program,” said Todd Olson, president of Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. “Mercy Medical Center has the ability to provide tremendous financial support and we have ability to educate bright and caring nursing students. We believe it’s a great benefit for each individual student that participates.“

The partnership is a “win-win” all around, said Mercy President and Chief Executive Officer Tim Charles. Not only will it benefit both institutions, but the program also helps create a way “to retain these very well-trained nurses from Mount Mercy in our community.”

“It’s a way of bolstering the employed base of the entire community,” Charles said. “It’s absolutely a win-win-win.”

Mercy investing ‘thousands’ in aid

There will be no limit on the number of students accepted into the program, said Mary Brobst, Mercy Medical Center’s chief nursing officer and senior vice president for patient care services.

The program is accepting nursing students in their sophomore, junior and senior years. Students enrolled in the program will receive financial assistance from Mercy to help cover the cost of their education. They’ll also receive a salary while working at least 20 hours a month during the school year as a phlebotomist or as a patient care technician I, who help care for patients’ basic needs.

Mercy officials declined to disclose how much financial assistance the nursing students would be provided, saying the funding varies based on individual student circumstances. Olson said Mercy’s investment into the program “is in the thousands.”

Salaries earned in their part-time job also will vary, since students can choose to work more than 20 hours a month, Brobst said.

“Everyone has different expenses and situations; we want to be able to help them with that by offering them valuable experience and competitive wage while in school,” Brobst said.

With these education assistance funds from Mercy, as well as other financial aid from the university, some students in the program will be able to graduate with very little debt, said Kim Bro, dean of the Martin-Herold College of Nursing and Health at Mount Mercy.

Hires from the program will be distributed throughout the hospital, but placements will focus first in areas that have the highest staffing needs, Brobst said. That includes inpatient units and the emergency department. From there, students also will be placed in surgical units and outpatient departments, she said.

Officials are reviewing applications now and hope to start onboarding students this month.

There are roughly 350 nursing students at Mount Mercy, including freshman who have applied to join the nursing program in the fall.

Since the program was announced to students a couple of weeks ago, the interest among current nursing students and incoming college students considering a career in nursing is already high, Bro said.

Driven by workforce challenges

Officials say the MercyReady Nursing Education Assistance Program builds on an already strong partnership between the two institutions, which were both founded by the same Catholic organization, the Sisters of Mercy. Olson said Mount Mercy has collaborated in various ways with Mercy Medical Center since the 1930s.

Nursing students have participated in clinical rotations at Mercy and other Corridor hospitals for some time, but this is the first instance that Mercy officials have offered financial aid to its students, Olson said.

Conversations to launch the program began in earnest this past fall, when it became “very, very apparent” the hospital was dealing with significant staffing concerns, Charles said.

Hospitals across the state — as well as the rest of the nation — reported shortages in nursing staff and other medical professionals in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, as COVID-19 cases threatened to overwhelm capacity and resources.

According to a 2020 workforce demand survey by Iowa Workforce Development and the Iowa Board of Nursing, nearly 60 percent of health care facilities statewide reported a shortage of qualified applicants for open nursing jobs. Of those, about 19 percent reported an “extreme” shortage and roughly 36 percent reported a “great” shortage.

As a result, health care systems have had to be innovative in their recruitment and retention efforts. Direct partnerships with academic institutions have become a pathway many hospital officials have taken as a solution to these challenges.

That’s particularly true as opportunities for new graduates have expanded beyond traditional health care settings. Nowadays, nurses can be employed in offices to manage employee health, work at insurance companies or in information technology, among other careers.

“The professional opportunities available for nurses today is extraordinary,” Charles said. “It’s becoming most one of the most versatile degrees an individual can acquire in health care.”

The majority of students from the Mount Mercy nursing program do start their careers in hospitals. Bro said a portion each year find jobs in other communities, such as Des Moines or Dubuque. This program will likely be an incentive for more nurses to stay in the community after graduation, she said.

Mount Mercy has collaborated with potential employers in the past, but Olson said the latest workforce challenge among local health care entities creates a new level of urgency.

“There’s an urgent need to strengthen the nursing workforce,” he said. “That urgency as well as the rapidly evolving landscape is what makes this such a priority.”

The program’s also offer an appealing recruitment tool for Mount Mercy, Olson said. He hopes that financial support can draw interest for their nursing program into a broader range of people.

Mount Mercy is also open to other collaborations with employers across the Corridor, Olson said.

Charles said Mercy officials are exploring other potential partnerships “with multiple academic institutions.” Those conversations are still early phases, and no details were released.

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