Grants to Assist Mercy Arkansas Hospitals in Expanding Nursing Programs

Amid an ongoing nursing shortage around the country, recent grants awarded to Mercy Hospitals will help create additional opportunities to recruit, retain, and educate nurses in Arkansas.

Through the Arkansas Linking Industry to Growing Nurses (ALIGN) Program, the Arkansas Office of Skills Development recently awarded $20.4 million to 19 Arkansas two- and four-year colleges and universities through collaborations with healthcare systems. Funding for the ALIGN grants is through the America Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and must be used by the end of 2026.

Mercy Fort Smith submitted its grant proposal in conjunction with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS), while Mercy Northwest Arkansas teamed up with Northwest Arkansas Community College (NWACC). Combined, Mercy will receive almost $3.2 million to support the creation of more educational opportunities for nurses and the development of additional hands-on training opportunities. 

“Receiving these grants is a significant step forward in addressing the nursing shortage that impacts not just our hospitals, but the entire state of Arkansas,” said Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy Arkansas. “We are incredibly grateful to Gov. Sarah Sanders and her administration for recognizing this need and allocating the funds to support our mission. These resources will enable us to enhance our nursing programs, provide critical hands-on training and ultimately ensure that our communities continue to receive high-quality care.”

Demand for registered nurses and licensed practical nurses remains high across the state. Mercy’s ability to deliver high-quality care in each of the communities it serves depends on the ability of nursing schools to train and graduate new nurses, while the schools depend on clinical settings to help further the education for nursing students. The relationship with area nursing schools drives Mercy to expand nurse training and build capacity to collaborate with regional nursing schools.

Jacqueline Truesdale, chief nursing officer at Mercy Northwest Arkansas, said expanding education opportunities for current and future nurses is a critical part of developing a nursing pipeline to help address the ongoing shortage.

“The best thing we can do to address the demand for nurses is to recruit and retain nurses through education programs,” Truesdale said. “These initiatives will help address the nurse shortage in our region by helping us build capacity to train more nursing students, upskill lower-level professionals and provide further education for employed nurses, which will lead to higher-level positions and better job retention.”

Each Mercy hospital plans for funding to go toward supporting additional clinical educators, managers, clinical instructors, and nursing leaders to expand clinical rotations. Scholarships and educational opportunities (including paid summer externships) will be created in conjunction with UAFS and NWACC.

Mercy Arkansas’ education goals include:

-Training an estimated 25-50 additional nursing students and employed nurses per year with clinical education.

-Enabling nursing schools to increase students by an estimated 10%.

-Upskilling an estimated 25 employed nurses to the next professional level each year.

-Educate an estimated five employed nurses to become adjunct faculty and clinical preceptors for partner nurse training programs.

Additionally, funding will be used to purchase high-tech simulation equipment such as manikins and virtual reality devices for simulation labs at both hospital locations. In Fort Smith, funding will provide enhancements for Mercy’s Dedicated Education Unit (DEU), including computers and audio-visual equipment. The unit opened in January and will expand in August for the fall 2024 semester to include additional students as well as evening and weekend options. Mercy NWA will create its own DEU through the grant funding.

“Hands-on training provides the best opportunity for our nurses to learn and expand their skills,” said Stephanie Whitaker, chief nursing officer at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith. “This was the driving force behind creating our DEU, which we are eager to expand. We also look forward to implementing additional resources to help train our current nurses as well as our future nurses through the DEU, simulation lab and more.”  

Mercy’s efforts to retain nurses has long included collaborations with area nursing programs. It also includes its Mercy Works on Demand program, known as gig nursing, which offers part-time and flexible schedules for nurses. Additionally, training opportunities will be available for nurses at Mercy’s rural critical access hospitals in Berryville, Booneville, Ozark, Paris, and Waldron.