We are all aware of the strain that the pandemic put on health care systems and the difficulty states face due to nursing shortages. Oklahoma’s nursing talent pipeline has been addressing the shortage for decades. Caring for COVID-19 patients exacerbated the strain on nurses and added a new sense of urgency to the problem.

A number of factors are cited including an aging workforce, nurses leaving the state for better pay elsewhere, and a shortage of nursing programs faculty.

Addressing the Nursing Shortage

One solution gaining traction aims to ease the nursing shortage, while rethinking the path to becoming a nurse. Oklahoma Christian University partnered with INTEGRIS Health, the largest Oklahoma-owned not-for-profit health system in the state, to give students a hands-on learning experience in hospitals while they are earning their B.S. nursing degrees. It’s called INTEGRIS University.

Brandon Tatum, chief strategy officer, Oklahoma Christian University (Photo: B. Tatum)

Brandon Tatum, Ed.D., Oklahoma Christian University’s chief strategy officer, says he came up with the idea, pointing to limited capacity at universities as a key problem.

“I don’t think we have a shortage of nurses,” says Tatum, “I think the people who want to become nurses are out there. We just haven’t scaled up the training of nurses.”

Apprenticeship-type Learning

Tatum says the model looks to leverage hospital space while creating an apprenticeship-type learning opportunity. He focused on Oklahoma’s career tech system at the high school level where students can gain certificates to become, for example, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) or licensed practical nurses (LPNs). 

Both are at the entry level of basic patient care and require the supervision of registered nurses.

Tatum says those students were trying to get into nursing degree programs and, additionally, not working in hospitals. “We created a system that really allows hospitals to hire nurse techs,” he explains. “So, they are hiring these nurse techs right out of high school, employing them, and we’ve embedded the nursing degree into the hospital system,” he adds.

Tatum emphasizes that students are learning in hospitals during the pandemic while also offering support to nurses who are stretched thin.

Scaling Up Training

Oklahoma Christian University and INTEGRIS Health launched a pilot program in August 2020 that grew to INTEGRIS University. Tatum counts roughly 140 enrolled students and expects that to multiply in the coming months.

Last month, OC announced additional hospitals in the state are partnering to provide their employees with work-based degree programs.

(Photo: Oklahoma Christian University)

Tuition is $7,500 per year, according to Tatum. Most students work part-time while taking courses online, but Tatum says there are adult learners who are full-time nurse techs while earning their degree. “I think we are providing opportunities for people who never thought they could get their degree,” says Tatum.

LPNs, for example, require a high school diploma and a certificate from a career tech program or community college. The median hourly age is roughly $18.64 in Oklahoma, according to the state’s Office of Workforce Development.

RNs with a B.S. degree earn roughly $32.02 an hour in Oklahoma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with an average salary of $66,000 a year.

Innovation and Flexibility Provide Access

INTEGRIS Health’s Kerri Bayer, senior vice president and chief nurse executive calls the program an “innovative approach” needed to address a “critical nursing shortage.”

“We are extremely grateful OC has provided a flexible academic program which allows candidates the opportunity to work in a hospital setting while receiving their necessary credits” she tells WorkingNation in a statement. She writes, “INTEGRIS Health is proud to partner with these caregivers in a way that ensures a supportive environment that encourages continued education while providing a place of employment that they can call home.”

The state’s nursing association also welcomes the idea and notes it has made it a priority to find solutions to the working shortage in its industry. “The Oklahoma Nurses Association supports innovative programs such as INTEGRIS University to increase the number of registered nurses in Oklahoma.  Oklahoma needs solutions that are innovative and creative to help solve our long-term nursing shortage crisis,” says Jane Nelson, CEO of the organization.

‘The Hospital Becomes the University’

As INTEGRIS University enters its second year, the program will be put to the test as it expands and reinvents the pathway to nursing.

“Graduate high school. Go to college. Go become a nurse,” says Tatum.  “Now, it’s go to high school. Get a nursing certificate in high school, some sort of certification in high school. Go be employed at a hospital, and get your degree at the same time,” he explains. “The hospital becomes the university.”