Caring meets college: Histories combine to address nursing shortages
Alhough the Baker University School of Nursing at Stormont Vail Regional HealthCare has only been associated with the University since 1991, that doesn’t mean it lacks history. Actually, it boasts several rich histories.
In 1884, Bishop Thomas Hubbard Vail, the first bishop of the Episcopal Dioceses of Kansas, established Christ Hospital in Topeka. As was the trend at that time, the hospital housed a school for aspiring nurses.
Eleven years later, the Jane C. Stormont Hospital and Training School for Nurses opened in Topeka. The two institutions prospered throughout the first few decades, but to accommodate changes in the health care industry, the two merged into Stormont-Vail in 1949.
Baker didn’t come into the picture for almost half a century, but the nursing world began experiencing a shift in philosophy that eventually led to a successful union between academic and medical worlds.
Kathleen Harr, dean of the Baker School of Nursing since 1997, explains the early efforts to transform nursing into not only a profession but an academic pursuit.
“Back in 1965, the field started working to have a baccalaureate degree for nursing,” she said. “If it was to be a baccalaureate degree, it needed to be housed in a college.”
After a transition that has spanned more than four decades, what was once an idea has shown positive results.
“Right now research suggests the more baccalaureate-prepared nurses in the work force, the lower the mortality rate in patients,” she said. “I think the reason is the baccalaureate nurse has a tendency to be a stronger critical thinker. Having had two years of prerequisites, they come with a better base on which to build their nursing knowledge.”
Harr said the collegiate experience also exposes students to different backgrounds and beliefs, providing an understanding that is essential for a nurse.
“Educational preparation is important because it helps nurses develop those critical-thinking skills, and it helps to expand their world view,” she said. “That’s so important for nurses. They deal with people every day. They have to have some understanding of human nature but also of different cultures. They have to be able to converse with people about things other than their ailments.”
Recognizing the need for bachelor-prepared nurses, both Stormont-Vail and Baker spent decades working to marry academia and health care.
Baker administrators began discussing the possibilities of a nursing school as early as the 1970s. During that time, a consortium between Kansas’ three Methodist universities was negotiated, but due to geographic inconvenience, no such nursing program was developed.
In 1986, Stormont-Vail’s academic pursuits came to fruition with the development of the Stormont-Vail School of Nursing. Needing a university partner, the school developed a nursing program with Saint Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City. However, several factors, not the least of which was the considerable separation between the two locations, led to the end of that affiliation.
Baker University became a natural choice. With more than 100 years of excellence in the medical and scientific fields, Baker and Stormont-Vail entered into negotiations. Stormont-Vail made an offer to then Baker President Daniel Lambert, who seized the opportunity to address a societal need, for the country and state were facing predictions of a nursing shortage.
“When they approached us, I went to the faculty and I was flabbergasted by the enthusiasm they had about nursing education,” he said. “The service commitment of the University fits that perfectly.”
Lambert credits Harr and her involvement in area nursing research and campaigns for the growth in enrollment. In those days, talk of a nursing shortage wasn’t prevalent, and a move into nursing education proposed some risk.
“The nursing schools in our area, with the exception of the University of Kansas, were not filled. Salaries and the working conditions were a huge factor,” Lambert said. “Kathy was one of the leaders across the state who encouraged more people to go into nursing. Eventually, it became obvious that if every vacant seat at nursing schools in the state of Kansas were filled, there still wouldn’t be enough nurses.”
The first Baker nursing class began in the fall of 1991. Over the course of its history, the program has steadily grown in size and reputation. It now operates at a capacity of 150 students, and is highly selective, accepting only about a third of applicants each semester.
As a result, Baker nurses have an extremely high pass rate on the nursing licensure exam, often reaching 100 percent — well above the national average of 84 percent. Baker nursing students generally have jobs in hand before they graduate.
As the School of Nursing continues to grow, more stories are added each semester to the three histories that once separately shared a common goal — enriching lives and contributing to society – but have since joined to form a new institution to realize old aspirations.