Florida Gulf Coast University, the state Legislature and the two largest healthcare systems in Southwest Florida are working together on a prescription to address the widespread nursing shortage.
For the past year, the School of Nursing in the Marieb College of Health & Human Services has benefited as a recipient of the Florida Legislature’s Linking Industry to Nursing Education (LINE) funding program.
To qualify for the grants, the school has to secure a dollar-to-dollar match from a healthcare partner. For 2023-24, NCH Healthcare System in Collier County and Lee Health in Lee County stepped up to fulfill this requirement. By doing so, the area’s two major hospital systems demonstrated their commitment to FGCU and the program poised to educate more nurses for Southwest Florida.
“We have such a fantastic pool of local talent at FGCU, and we are thrilled to take advantage of that,” says Jen Higgins, Lee Health’s chief nursing officer. Lee Health has partnered with FGCU on this initiative for two years. “At Lee Health, we are focused on empowering our nurses to lead at every level. The partnership with FGCU will help support and elevate Lee Health’s commitment to quality patient care in the Southwest Florida community, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for this collaboration.”
“The LINE grant offers an excellent opportunity for NCH and FGCU to collaborate and combat the growing nursing shortage during a time when our community needs nurses the most,” says Ilia Echevarria, NCH’s chief nursing officer. This is the first year NCH has partnered with FGCU to help support the LINE grant.
According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment projections, the healthcare sector is projected to create 45% of all projected new jobs from 2022 to 2032. Nurse practitioners are among the top three occupations in that sector to expect increased employment and rapid growth through 2032. The current shortages affecting hospitals nationwide are felt locally and caused by a lack of qualified nurses.
One goal of the LINE funding program is to increase the number of nursing graduates to combat the shortfall in the state. Brenda Hage, FGCU’s School of Nursing director, says the funds are already making a difference through scholarships for financially challenged nursing students.
“Our students are working while they’re going to school, and when they’re trying to juggle so many things it can detract from their ability to be successful,” says Hage. “These scholarships have been so essential because they’re allowing our students to focus more fully on their education, as opposed to having to work as many hours.”
One student benefiting from a LINE scholarship is Immokalee native Madison Turrubiartez. Without it, the junior says she would have needed at least one part-time job to pay for her education. Thanks to the scholarship, her tuition and expenses are covered for the next three semesters. “This is the first time I don’t have to work to pay for school,” she says.
While Turrubiartez is unsure what kind of nursing she wants to pursue after graduation, she knows where she wants to work. “I want to stay in Florida because I want to stay with my family. I love my family,” she says.
One goal for NCH and Lee Health’s partnership is to keep nursing graduates like Turrubiartez in Florida. As part of the LINE scholarship, Turrubiartez and other recipients will also participate in an 18-month residency at Lee Health after graduation, which further supports new graduates as they enter practice.
Turrubiartez was one of 17 students awarded a LINE scholarship this year, according to Jorge Lopez, associate vice president in Student Financial Enrollment and Business Services. The average award is about $8,600, he said. Eight other students had their loans reduced or entirely replaced by a LINE scholarship to the tune of over $45,000. More than $145,000 has been awarded in the past year.
In addition to supporting student scholarships, LINE funds are used to purchase simulation equipment, recruit additional faculty and cover other essential one-time expenses to facilitate the expansion of the nursing program.
The partnership with Lee Health and NCH extends beyond funding, providing opportunities for clinical rotations and fostering a commitment to producing top-notch graduates to address the healthcare needs of Southwest Florida residents.
Shawn Felton, Marieb College’s interim dean, believes such collaborative community partnerships are invaluable.
“I think we’re all in the business of making Southwest Florida the best community we can. And we have an obligation, from the university’s perspective, to align the workforce talent for our clinical partners. This is just another example of great partners working together for a common goal,” says Felton.