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CommonSpirit Health: Growing, Diversifying, and Strengthening the Nation's Nursing Workforce

Analysis  |  By Carol Davis  
   June 27, 2022

CommonSpirit partners with historically Black medical school to add faculty and resources to help grow nursing enrollment and diversity.

Nursing schools turn away tens of thousands of qualified applicants due to shortages of clinical sites and faculty, so CommonSpirit Health is responding by partnering with Charles R. Drew University (CDU) of Medicine and Science, one of the nation's four historically Black medical schools, to grow and diversify the nursing workforce.

The partnership will:

Expand access to quality education and training by adding faculty and resources that help CDU, one of the nation's leading educators of Black and other underrepresented minority nurses, grow its enrollment.  

Establish mentorship programs for diverse high school students and build relationships with pre-college educators and guidance counselors to help ensure that students know their options and the prerequisite coursework necessary for a career in nursing.

HealthLeaders spoke with Kathy Sanford, DBA, RN, FAAN, FACHE, CommonSpirit Health's executive vice president and chief nursing officer, about what the partnership hopes to achieve.

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

HealthLeaders: How was this partnership developed?

Kathy Sanford: We looked at who we wanted to partner with next—we have more than one partnership with academia—that would have the same values that we have. We looked at Charles Drew because it was in one of our markets, and it [also] is committed to diversity, committed to social justice, and committed to health equity for underserved populations.

It started out as a nursing-to-nursing outreach. I reached out to [Delia Santana], who at the time was acting dean of the School of Nursing and is now the assistant provost for clinical affairs and hospital partnerships. She and I just started talking about "what ifs" and what could we do with our common missions and our common desire to increase diversity among nurses, to increase understanding of culture among nurses, to get people in nursing, and make a difference in underserved populations. We decided we had something that was worth taking further and that could make a difference.

One of our goals is to help communities—not just CommonSpirit Health, but health systems across the country—be healthier, and there's a lot of talk about how communities aren't healthy because they don't have the right healthcare; they don't have the right nutrition. You can't have a healthy community unless it’s fiscally healthy and that's a piece that we need to not forget.

Nursing and other healthcare careers are a solid step into the solid middle class. And helping diverse students not only will help their patients and not only help us as systems to have diverse nursing staff, which we need, but if we help reach into communities and help people understand this, it's a solid step to improving the fiscal health of entire communities.

HL: How much will CDU's nursing program expand because of this program? How many more nursing students will it be able to accommodate?

Sanford: I don't know that yet. The first thing that we did was made sure that Charles Drew students can be placed in all of the hospitals that we have in the Los Angeles area and we started working with them to figure out how to place their ARNP [advanced registered nurse practitioner] students, because that's also an issue—where do you put advanced practice nurse students for their practicum?

Our second step is to determine exactly what the goal will be and how we're going to get there. We believe in five-year strategies.

HL: How will the partnership address the shortage of clinical sites and educators?

Sanford: In our initial discussions, we talked about being creative with clinical sites, and not always having them on the day shift, and not always having them Monday through Friday, and figuring out more creative ways to do those clinical sites. Charles Drew has wonderful simulation labs, but we also want the time for those students in the clinical sites so we're going to be more creative.

Universities and [health systems] have to partner together to figure out not only the clinical sites, but the shortage of educators. There aren't enough educators, so we have a tuition reimbursement program at CommonSpirit Health that helps our nurses go back and pursue the degrees that they would need to educate. We want to encourage nurses who work for us to become at least part-time faculty that would help Charles Drew expand the number of faculty that can be on site with their students.

HL: How will the high school mentorship programs work?

Sanford: This would not be the first time that CommonSpirit has done things like that, but this would be the first time that we are doing it with a university national [memorandum of understanding]. We don't know exactly what the details will be, but we are talking about how we could get into the junior highs and high schools with [representatives] who are of the same race and culture as the students so they can see people who look like them.

We can do that with just the university faculty, but we want to do that with our successful leaders and nurses that are part of CommonSpirit who can go with faculty into the high schools and talk about education and talk about where you can go into nursing, because nursing is a career that opens all kinds of different doors. We believe that a combination of nurses who are working in operations in hospitals, and clinics, and in home health, combined with the faculty will help educate students about nursing.

But further than that, we also believe that your ZIP code may affect what kind of education you're getting. It doesn't always, but it might. So, we have talked about how the two of us together—the university and CommonSpirit Health—can come up with programs of tutoring to help students that are interested in going to nursing school and other healthcare professions [with] science and math classes, which are usually the most difficult for all students when they try to apply to nursing school.

HL: Looking down the road, how much of a pipeline is this going to provide for CommonSpirit’s hospitals, both in terms of diversity, and in terms of nursing numbers?

Sanford: We do believe it'll be a pipeline not only for us, but for other hospitals. We're working with Charles Drew on this specifically because Charles Drew also has a mission to develop nurse leaders, and we're very pleased with that. We want more diverse nurse leaders. So, when you talk about a pipeline, it's not just a pipeline from the university; it's a pipeline from junior high and high school, and helping people understand about going into nursing. Then it's getting them through nursing and making sure that they have a clinic to go and perhaps a mentor even while they're in school, to help them.

And then this year, we are setting up our first national residency program for nurses. It's a year-long residency that would not only help them graduate from school, but then get into the residency. So, whenever we talk about pipeline, I always like to say that you can't do just one portion of it; there has to be a complete pipeline for nurses for their entire career. You have to connect all those pieces of the pipeline and be able to show not only high school students, and nurses who are in school, and new grads, but all of your nurses that there are so many opportunities in nursing; that it's a career for a lifetime.

“You can't have a healthy community unless it’s fiscally healthy and that's a piece that we need to not forget. Nursing and other healthcare careers are a solid step into the solid middle class … [and] a solid step to improving the fiscal health of entire communities.”

Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.


CommonSpirit Health is partnering with Charles R. Drew University (CDU) of Medicine and Science to grow and diversify the nursing workforce.

Junior highs and high schools would be visited by CommonSpirit nurses and CDU faculty who share their race and culture to educate them about opportunities in nursing.

The partnership will benefit more than CommonSpirit’s nurse census and diversity; it will benefit the nursing industry, as well.

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