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Texas needs nurses, and a new nursing college at UNT Health Science Center aims to fill the gap

The University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
Courtesy photo
UNT Health Science Center via Facebook
The University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth has long prepared its students to bring good medicine to the region, educating doctors of osteopathic medicine, physician assistants and future public health experts.

Now, UNT HSC can add degreed, trained nurses to the list of medical professionals it will educate at the campus in Fort Worth.

Cindy Weston, the founding dean of the College of Nursing at UNT Health Science Center, said nursing is already vital in clinics, hospitals and schools.

Now, Weston said, nurses are crucial in each of those settings and beyond.

“Nurses are vital in increasing access to primary care across the lifespan,” she said. “When we talk about family practice, that is really across-the-lifespan care. Health promotion, disease prevention, addressing acute and chronic conditions — all of these have been a cornerstone of nursing practice.”

At a recent UNT Board of Regents meeting, the university system’s leadership voted to launch two new nursing programs.

Texas House Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, carried the message about the deepening need for nurses in the Lone Star State earlier this month, during the groundbreaking of Texas Woman’s University’s new Health Sciences Center. TWU has been training nurses for generations and has one of the top nursing programs in the country.

“Right now we are 20,000 nurses short in the state of Texas,” Stucky said at the TWU groundbreaking. “The projection is that by 2028, we will be 190,000 short.”

Weston confirmed that Texas’ demand for skilled nurses is a multidimensional one. Like the rest of the country, Texas residents are aging, and older Texans will need more medical attention more frequently. But Texas is also leading the nation in growth, passing the 30 million population mark in 2022.

Weston said nurses are at the front lines of health care in the country and have been for more than 100 years. Clara Barton parlayed her nursing experience into founding the American Red Cross in 1881. Lillian Wald, a nurse, founded the Henry Street Settlement in lower Manhattan to provide health care to residents about 12 years after Barton founded the American Red Cross.

“Nurses have been going into communities and delivering access to care where it was needed the most for generations,” Weston said. “Nurses have had a focus on communities and improving population health outcomes. We certainly need that in our state. And we certainly need that here in the Fort Worth-Dallas metroplex area.”

But don’t mistake Weston as being hyperfocused on DFW.

“We are a metropolitan area, but we’re surrounded by vast regions of rural communities, and that’s an area that needs access to health care and will continue to need it,” she said. “Texas has the largest rural population in the entire United States. Over 3 million in our population live in rural areas. And we know that, when you live in a rural area, you have poor health outcomes and higher potential mortality rates from conditions because of later diagnosis of those conditions.”

The new College of Nursing will start with two degrees: a new Bachelor of Science degree with a major in nursing and a Master of Science in nursing practice innovation.

The degree programs are slated to be open as online programs in fall 2024.

Weston said the registered nurse to Bachelor of Science in nursing is a pathway for nurses who earned an associate’s degree to complete a bachelor’s degree. Research has found that nurses who earn a bachelor’s degree see better health outcomes in their patients, something Weston credits to more education and more practical experience.

UNT HSC is especially excited about the second degree, a master’s degree for degreed nurses who can match their scholarship to leadership with a program that they can customize.

“There is no other degree like this in Texas right now,” Weston said. “This degree is not a canned degree that we’re going to fit a nurse into. It allows for the nurse to come in with different areas of interest and expertise that we will allow them to upskill in an area of focus.”

Weston said the master’s student could be a nurse working in chronic care management or complex care coordination.

“It could be digital health and technology to impact health disparities,” she said. “It could be correctional care nursing, or any area of concentration that a registered nurse wants to develop a stronger expertise in.”

The new master’s degree could also attract nurses who saw urgent needs in COVID-19 care units, or who might have entrepreneurial ideas about nursing administration.

UNT HSC’s new nursing college has such broad and deep implications, Weston said, that North Texas and the rest of the state could well be the beneficiaries of skilled nurses who’ve completed degrees through the Fort Worth college. Whether they land in school districts, suburban, urban or rural clinics, hospitals, telehealth or other health care settings, Weston said, UNT HSC graduates will be community-minded. It’s nearly a reflex for degreed nurses, she said.

“Nurses are going to be the health care professionals that close those gaps,” she said. “Nurses so often are the first people to see what is happening in communities, and what the needs are. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we intend to help nurses find a pathway into that advanced degree.”