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Commentary: More professors needed to teach nursing students

By Barbara Patterson The country is on the brink of a crisis that has the potential to affect the care of patients - in the hospital, at the doctor's office, in schools - just about anywhere there should be a nurse.

By Barbara Patterson

The country is on the brink of a crisis that has the potential to affect the care of patients - in the hospital, at the doctor's office, in schools - just about anywhere there should be a nurse.

The need for nurses has created record enrollments in nursing schools nationwide, which has contributed to an increased need for academic nurse faculty. Unfortunately, a national shortage of doctorally prepared faculty threatens society's access to a workforce of competent nurses delivering patient care.

The problem stems from a shortage of professors to teach aspiring nurses. We cannot have more nurses if we do not have qualified faculty to teach them. Who is going to take care of the public if nursing faculty are not being prepared to teach and advance the science of how students learn nursing? It is a problem we will all have to deal with.

There will be a dramatic effect on the population as more nursing faculty members retire and more of the "Baby Boomer" generation seeks health-care treatment. The Association of Academic Health Centers has stated, "Worsening faculty shortages in academic health centers are threatening the nation's health professions educational infrastructure."

As the health-care environment becomes increasingly complex, nurses must be prepared to assume greater responsibility and accountability for the health of individuals. The challenge for nurse faculty is to prepare nurses that are ready to meet the demands of this environment.

Faculty shortages across the nation are already leading to qualified students being turned away at a number of universities. According to a report by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), 68,938 qualified applicants were turned away from baccalaureate and graduate programs in 2014. Faculty shortage is a major factor contributing to this, but there are others, including, according to a study by AACN, budget constraints, aging faculty, and increasing job competition from clinical sites.

Less than one percent of all nurses have a Ph.D. and Widener University is one of less than a dozen schools nationally that focuses its research doctoral degree on nursing education and nursing science. A contributing issue that impacts the preparation of faculty is that most government funding supports clinically focused research, as opposed to research in nursing education to prepare nurse faculty and advance nursing education. In quoting the Institute of Medicine, "at no time in recent history has there been a greater need for research on nursing education."

We need to change the mindset of the students coming into the field and work on educating the public of this need. Many students enter the field to pursue a career in nursing so they can have a direct impact on patients. Yet, they need to consider the impact they could have through teaching. Why help just one patient when one could help many? Nurse faculty may not always have direct patient contact, yet they impact hundreds of patients' lives every day through their students and alumni.

Doctoral education in nursing is a topic the public does not fully understand. Many do not know what it means to have a doctorate in nursing or the role a Ph.D. prepared nurse has in practice and education. The roles of being a nursing faculty member require one to be a nurse, and also be a scholar who has the ability to generate and disseminate research.

The Mid-Atlantic region has been successful in sustaining nursing Ph.D. programs, which is why programs like those at Widener and Villanova University, which have an emphasis on nursing education, need to attract potential nurse faculty who are not able to access other programs. This fall, Widener's School of Nursing will offer hybrid delivery options for Ph.D. courses as a way to capture more students who cannot come to campus for face-to-face sessions.

If we do not see an increase in nurses pursuing nursing education at the doctoral level, then there will be a sacrifice in the outcomes. There will be more nurses teaching prelicensure students without adequate educational preparation and experience. Not only will patients suffer from the potential lack of a well-educated competent nurse, but the entire discipline of nursing will also be affected without advances in nursing education.

Barbara Patterson is a distinguished professor and director of the Ph.D. program in the School of Nursing at Widener University.