Vision 2023 'Opportunities are endless': Area programs address national nursing shortage

Feb. 25—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Four local suppliers have stepped up production to help meet the growing shortage in their area of specialization.

The suppliers are educational institutions, and their "products" are nurses and other medical professionals needed to address the national workforce shortage.

Nursing programs at Conemaugh Health System, the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, St. Francis University and Mount Aloysius College include all three paths available for students to become registered nurses.

The programs not only help meet a vital need, but also provide students with a rewarding career that pays well, program leaders say.

"When we do orientation for new students, we tell them it's going to be a tough two years, but when they come out, they'll say it's the best decision they made," Conemaugh School of Nursing Director Bonnie Mazurak-Riga said. "The opportunities are endless."

Not everyone is a candidate for a career in nursing, the leaders say.

"It requires critical thinking," Mount Aloysius Academic Dean Chris Lovett said. "They have to be committed to continuing to learn and adapt to the field."

"People who come into nursing have care and compassion for people," said Rita Trofino, chairwoman of the nursing department at St. Francis. "They want patients to get better."

Conemaugh's two-year diploma represents the origins of nursing education — a hospital-based training program created to fill the institution's needs.

St. Francis, Pitt-Johnstown and Mount Aloysius all offer four-year bachelor's degrees, and the Mount also has a two-year associate degree registered nurse (RN) program.

All three paths prepare and qualify graduates to take the National Council Licensure Examination that's required to become registered nurses.

With an increased emphasis on a more rounded education, more students are choosing college-based programs, leading many hospitals to close their nursing schools.

Conemaugh, however, has adapted its program and partnered with several colleges that allow Conemaugh's diploma RNs to complete their bachelor of science in nursing degrees while working full-time in the health system's hospitals, Mazurak-Riga said.

The Conemaugh school has produced 4,208 nurses since it was founded in 1896.

All four schools confirm the growing demand that puts graduates in a strong position in the current job market.

"We have recruiters coming here from across Pennsylvania and other states as well," Trofino said. "They're getting here in September and not waiting until spring."

Conemaugh not only guarantees jobs for all graduates, but also will repay tuition for new nurses who commit to working within the system for four years.

"We have a program we are offering right now where they basically get their nursing diploma for free," Trofino said.

Tuition normally costs nearly $37,000.

New graduates — especially those with bachelor's degrees — have a wide range of job possibilities. Nurses are also in demand by hospitals, doctors' offices, schools, public health agencies, pharmaceutical companies, nursing homes and more.

"You can pretty much name your area," Pitt-Johnstown nursing and health sciences Chairwoman Janet Grady said.

A founder of the Pitt-Johnstown program, Grady is an example of the profession's versatility. She has worked in administration, teaching and research, as well as hospital bedside care. The options continue to expand, she said, citing nursing careers such as genetic counseling and bioinformatics.

"It's a whole area that didn't exist 20 to 30 years ago," Grady said.

Grady managed a research program for several years that looked at the safety and effectiveness of telehealth.

"That was before COVID," she said. "We were on the front end of what we are doing now. It really helped people to see how technology can expand nursing care and also all kinds of medical care."

Leading Pitt-Johnstown's nursing program allowed Grady to oversee the development of the school's labs with high-tech patient simulators to help students learn and practice skills safely.

"We have to make sure our education is keeping up with what's going on in the world," she said.

For years, nursing schools used actors, known as standardized patients, to mimic a real patient's response to treatment. The latest patient simulators include artificial intelligence to respond to various treatments for assigned conditions.

All of the interactions between the student and the simulator are recorded by computer for faculty review, Grady said.

Nurses with bachelor's degrees who want to further their careers have local options for a master of science in nursing degree or family nurse practitioner certification through St. Francis. The university currently has 170 undergraduate nursing students and 31 graduate nursing students.

Although it has a capacity of 100 students, Conemaugh School of Nursing has 51 students enrolled.

Mount Aloysius has 442 students in its undergraduate and associate degree programs.

Pitt-Johnstown has 155 undergraduates.

Each of the four schools also has programs that prepare students for specialized medical professions.

Mount Aloysius offers curricula for physical therapy assistants, medical imaging, surgical technology, ultrasonography and echocardiography.

Conemaugh has emergency medical services, histotechnology, medical laboratory science, radiologic technology and surgical technology.

St. Francis has medical laboratory science and pre-med.

Pitt-Johnstown has surgical technology, respiratory care and healthcare management.