In its 20-year history, Tennessee Tech University's School of Nursing has always been located within two miles of Cookeville Regional Medical Center.
But the two institutions are even closer than ever now, thanks to a growing relationship that will likely strengthen both through a projected national nursing shortage that could mean as many as one million job openings for nurses by 2010.
"The university and the hospital haven't collaborated to such a significant degree until now, and I hope that doesn't change anytime soon," said Marilyn Musacchio, TTU's Dean of Nursing.
That partnership has allowed TTU and CRMC to develop a "grow-your-own" approach at a time when nursing schools across the country are turning out fewer graduates and when half the nation's registered nurses will likely be retiring within the next 15 years.
"We already know TTU's nursing program turns out good graduates, but we're working together on a number of activities that will help make them even better. I call it growing our own because so many of the students who participate in these activities may eventually return to the hospital as employees," said Linda Crawford, CRMC's vice president of patient care services.
Fifty percent of all nurses working at the hospital are TTU graduates, she said.
One of the activities being used to enhance the training of future nurses is a traditional internship program — in which graduates work full-time for six months to a year under the supervision of an experienced professional.
"A six-month internship in the operating room, for example, helps a future OR nurse learn all the instruments and familiarize himself or herself with aspects of anatomy that just can't be taught in a classroom," Crawford said.
The two entities have also collaborated on an "externship" program, a 10-week session that allows the student — under the direction of a hospital professional called a preceptor — to spend a limited amount of time in different hospital departments, such as the emergency room, psychiatric unit and delivery room and obstetrics.
"Training future nurses is easier with a relationship like this. It allows them to find their niche and develop their individual skills," she said.
Although the university and the hospital have participated in internship and externship programs for some time, however, it was a shared learning lab that helped administrators from each realize the power of partnership.
When the nursing program's building — a former elementary school at the edge of campus — was condemned because of structural deficiencies in January 2001, it lost its 10-bed clinical laboratory, Musacchio said.
That's when the program moved temporarily to the university's Jere Whitson Hall — where it is still located — and when the arrangement to use the hospital's learning lab came about.
"When the building was first condemned, we were permitted to bring our beds, mannequins and other equipment to the lab at the hospital, and that arrangement worked out very well," Musacchio said.
Crawford agreed, saying she felt the success of both programs was dependent upon each other.
"I sometimes wonder what position this hospital would be in if Tennessee Tech administrators hadn't established the School of Nursing back in 1980. Without it, I don't think we'd be able to offer some of the services we do today," she said.
Writer's note: In recognition of the week of Monday, May 6, as National Nurses Week, this is the second in a series of three articles about the impact of the projected nursing shortage and the facilities need at TTU's School of Nursing on the university, local hospitals and health care offices and the community in general.