Grant program increasing nurse practitioners in Central Louisiana
Graduates agree to work in Central Louisiana parishes
A grant program that offers stipends to nursing school graduate students who commit to work in Central Louisiana two years after receiving their master’s degrees has increased the number of nurse practitioners in the region, giving residents better access to primary care services that are sometimes hard to find in rural areas.
The Nurse Practitioner Program is a partnership between The Rapides Foundation and Northwestern State University’s College of Nursing and Allied Health. It is designed to increase people’s access to quality primary healthcare by expanding the healthcare workforce. A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse educated in a specified area of care and certified according to the requirements of a nationally recognized accrediting agency, and who is authorized to provide primary, acute or chronic care. In Louisiana, a nurse practitioner works under a collaborative practice agreement with a physician.
The Rapides Foundation’s mission is to improve the health status of Central Louisiana. In support of this mission, one of its objectives is to increase the number of qualified healthcare professionals in the region. A 2013 industry growth analysis by the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance and a 2016 follow-up analysis by The Rapides Foundation emphasized the need for more healthcare professionals in the region, highlighting a significant gap in supply and demand of healthcare providers. Due to the aging population of the service area, this gap has the potential to significantly affect the overall health of the area, the report concluded.
“The healthcare shortage coupled with an aging population is a nationwide problem, and is especially evident in rural areas. Our partnership with NSU is increasing the number of nurse practitioners who are qualified to provide primary care services in facilities throughout Central Louisiana,” said Joe Rosier, President and CEO of The Rapides Foundation.
The grant program began in July 2012, after The Rapides Foundation approached NSU’s College of Nursing and Allied Health to find out how the school could help increase primary care in Central Louisiana. Dr. Norann Planchock, who at the time was dean of the College of Nursing and Allied Health, and her staff worked with Annette Beuchler, the Foundation’s Director of Programs and Communications, to create the Nurse Practitioner Program.
The grant program is for graduate students in NSU’s Master of Science in Nursing program who are pursuing primary care nurse practitioner concentrations in family, women’s health or pediatrics. Students receive a stipend of $750 per semester in the final five semesters. In accepting the stipend agreement, students agree to work two years in Central Louisiana after they graduate and become licensed as nurse practitioners.
An essential part of the project was hiring a full-time nurse practitioner faculty member, Robyn Ray, to work in Alexandria instead of the Shreveport offices where the NSU College of Nursing is based. After the number of participating graduate students doubled in the second cohort, a second fulltime nurse practitioner faculty member, Diana Corley, was hired. Having faculty members in Alexandria gave the Central Louisiana graduate students advising, instruction and clinical supervision closer to home.
Diana Corley (left) and Robyn Ray
“Although education has really moved to online, we found in research when we developed our doctoral program that students still want to go to a college that is close-by, even if it is mostly an online environment. They like to feel more connected,” said Connie Hale, Northwestern’s Director of Graduate Studies and Research in Nursing.
So far in the program, 24 nurses have earned their master’s degrees and are currently working in Central Louisiana as nurse practitioners. The Rapides Foundation recently extended the program to allow one more cohort of six graduate students. This will bring the number of new, qualified nurse practitioners who graduated under the grant to 30.
“Having the students sign an agreement saying they would take the stipend money really caused them to pause and think about it. And it really worked. Once they signed the agreement, they were committed to stay. I think if they stay somewhere and establish themselves for a couple of years in the area as a provider, they are more likely to stay in the long term,” said Dr. Dana Clawson, Dean of NSU’s College of Nursing and Allied Health.
The stipend also helped students offset some of the expenses of graduate school.
“All of our students are already registered nurses with a bachelor’s degree, and most of them are married with children and families, so it’s hard for a lot of people to think about going back to school,” said Assistant Professor of Nursing Robyn Ray. “It’s safe to say, and you can see that with the growth of this program, that there are so many students who feel like they now have an opportunity to go back to school. And to the community, it has opened up a wealth of new healthcare providers.”
Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner Clint Cooksey, who graduated from the program in 2015 and now works full-time at the LaSalle Family Medicine Clinic in his hometown of Jena, said the stipend took the financial pressure off and allowed him to focus on his graduate school studies. “That stipend helped me a lot because I would have had to pinch pennies and probably had more student loans,” he said. “It definitely helped lower the stress level, which is high enough as it is.”
All of Northwestern’s nurse practitioner graduate students enroll in a minimum of five clinical semesters. The students who receive the stipend from The Rapides Foundation grant receive their clinical experiences at facilities within the nine parishes served by the Foundation. Students are required to put in 360 clinical hours in their final semester.
“We see that wherever students do their final semester, we call that their practicum, they are likely hired on at that place,” Hale said. “So we encourage our students to do their last semester in a place where they are interested in working because they can see if it’s a good fit. They get the feel of the clinic and the flow and how things work, and it’s such a nice transition in the practice.”
Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner Emily Sangid graduated from the program in 2015 and is working at the Elizabeth Family Health Clinic in Elizabeth and with Dr. Thomas Davis in Oakdale. A Shreveport native, Sangid plans to stay because she prefers living and working in rural Louisiana, an area in need of healthcare providers.
Sangid moved to Allen Parish after receiving her bachelor’s degree. When she was in graduate school, she learned about The Rapides Foundation’s grant stipend program. “It was a no-brainer for me. It gave me the opportunity to pay for school and stay in the area. This is a growing community that needed nurse practitioners, and I wanted to stay close to home and help with that need.”
Her husband, Evan Earl, also enrolled in the Nurse Practitioner Program. He graduated a year after she did and also practices in Allen Parish. “For us, this program gave us the opportunity to focus more on school and less on how we were going to pay the day-to-day bills,” Sangid said. “I plan to stay. I don’t have any reason to leave. If I and other practitioners were not here, people would have to travel elsewhere. We have a lot of elderly patients that can’t travel or some don’t have a way to. It’s definitely more convenient for them.”
Assistant Professor of Nursing Diana Corley said nurse practitioners have a caring spirit about them, so they naturally want to help their communities.
“I think it is important for the public to know that research supports the use of nurse practitioners as primary care providers. Nurse practitioners are cost-effective and there have been countless studies that support the use of nurse practitioners to provide safe and effective care,” she said. “Patients are very satisfied with the care from a nurse practitioner, and we are the perfect fit to fill the shortage of rural health providers in Central Louisiana. The Rapides Foundation should be applauded for their desire to improve the health of our patients and residents here at home by supporting the education of nurse practitioners.”
Clawson agreed. “I have been thrilled to have worked with The Rapides Foundation. They ask the right questions and then they go to the right people who know the answers. If we hadn’t had that grant support, I don’t think we would have been able to hire our first nurse practitioner faculty member to be in Alexandria, which doubled the number of NP students in the area so much that we had to hire a second person. I think that was visionary, and we could not do what we do without them.”