Education, health care and government leaders in Baltimore County plan to partner on a program that aims to produce a new crop of sorely needed nurses in area hospitals.

In an event Monday, they plan to announce Public Health Pathways, a program to address long-standing shortages that were exacerbated locally and nationally by the coronavirus pandemic. Those shortages are being further highlighted now by the flood of patients with flu and RSV to emergency rooms.

The program is designed to get professionals to the bedside faster by certifying students to be nursing assistants in four months and then to become licensed practical nurses over 20 more months. This would give a guaranteed career path to students from disadvantaged county neighborhoods.

“There is a critical need in this field and we’re excited to help fill some gaps,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski ahead of the announcement.

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“We’re going to provide a career pathway for individuals who were, unfortunately, historically excluded because they lacked access to the cost of tuition, transportation or child care,” Olszewski said. “The program knocks down barriers and creates pipelines.”

The program will be announced at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, which has pledged to hire the students, who will then be trained at the Community College of Baltimore County.

This is the latest effort by medical systems and nursing schools to add to the number of health care professionals in hospitals, where one in four nursing positions is vacant, according to the Maryland Hospital Association.

The shortage of nurses is a national problem that predates the pandemic and is expected to continue to worsen without intervention, national nursing officials say. The workforce across the country is projected to grow by about 6% over the next decade, or by about 195,000 positions, according to the Association of Colleges of Nursing.

But that won’t be enough to fill the 203,200 expected openings each year through 2031, due to retirements and nurses leaving the profession. A recent study in the journal Health Affairs found a mass exodus during the pandemic for nurses, particularly those working in hospitals.

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Local nursing schools, hospital systems and governments already have been trying to boost the workforce in multiple ways, including attracting more faculty to schools and offering scholarships to students and stipends to professional preceptors. Maryland health officials also loosened licensing rules for practicing in the state during the pandemic to allow those with out-of-state and expired licenses to work and take on more tasks.

St. Joseph Medical Center has a new program to train more nurses at the Community College of Baltimore County to work at the hospital (there's a giant national and local nurse shortage).
St. Joseph Medical Center has a new program to train more hospital nurses at the Community College of Baltimore County. (St. Joseph Medical Center)

The Public Health Pathways Program pilot will initially provide 30 scholarships to cover tuition and fees at the Community College of Baltimore County. There will also be a $1,000-a-month stipend to cover household costs as they continue studies and work at St. Joseph Medical Center.

The $1.175 million cost will be funded through Baltimore County’s federal American Rescue Plan funds and a $500,000 investment from the University of Maryland Medical System.

“By offering these opportunities, we hope to inspire and empower a new generation of health care providers ready to provide loving service and compassionate care,” said Dr. Thomas B. Smyth, St. Joseph president and CEO.

The hospital and the community college will collaborate on a work and study schedule, as well as on mentorships, tutoring and support. The application process will begin early next year and the first group of students will begin training next summer.

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“This is what we do best: reskill and upskill today’s workers,” said Sandra Kurtinitis, the community college president. “We look forward to this partnership, which will create opportunities for economic independence among students whose options otherwise may be limited.”

Jennifer Lynch, Baltimore County’s director of educational partnership, said the program came out of a discussion between Olszewski and Dr. Mohan Suntha, president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System. They wanted to both fill a workforce need and give opportunities to unemployed or underemployed residents near a medical center.

Olszewski said they hashed out many details on the spot, and the county, medical system and community college formed the actual program with an eye on flexibility.

Lynch said that means students can, for example, use extra cash each month for any household expense. After they are certified nursing assistants, they can work three 12-hour shifts so they still have free days for nursing school.

She said when they become licensed practical nurses, they can earn $50,000 to $60,000 to start.

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“We’re hoping this is just the beginning,” Lynch said, adding the county will look for additional funding sources to continue the program after the first cohort of students. “We’ll be tracking the progress of the program and adapting it so that it is successful. And then we’ll look to expand.”

Meredith Cohn is a health and medicine reporter for The Baltimore Banner, covering the latest research, public health developments and other news. She has been covering the beat in Baltimore for more than two decades.

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