Healthcare organizations are facing critical shortages in their health professional workforce. For example, recent data show that the total supply of registered nurses (RNs) nationally dropped by 100,000 over the course of a single year—2021—a drop that exceeds anything seen over the past four decades. Another study found that eight in 10 healthcare facilities are experiencing a shortage of allied health professionals, the many professionals (apart from physicians and nurses) who work in such areas as physical and occupational therapy, radiography and imaging, medical technology, and dietary and nutrition services. In addition, the availability of physician extenders such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners is a vital component of many healthcare organizations’ strategies to strengthen community access. These shortages will likely be compounded by strong future demand for healthcare professionals. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that overall employment in healthcare occupations will grow 13% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average rate of growth across all occupations.
On the higher education side, data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) show that enrollments for entry level nursing programs were up 3.3% in 2021. However, key nursing programs saw declines in 2021. For example, RN to BSN saw a 9.6% decline and masters programs saw a 3.8% decline. Moreover, some qualified nursing students may not be accepted due to insufficient clinical placement sites, faculty, preceptors, and classroom space, as well as budget cuts.
Benefits of partnership between health systems and higher ed institutions
Why are these statistics important for both higher education and healthcare leaders to understand?
The current and future need for health professionals presents growth opportunities for colleges and universities interested or already active in health professional education. These opportunities can be augmented through partnerships with health systems, some of which support employee tuition for degree or certification programs across a range of health professions.
These partnerships can offer multiple benefits to both health systems and higher ed institutions.
- For health systems, benefits can include a pipeline for new talent and the opportunity to offer enhanced educational benefits to—and enhance the skills of—existing employees. For health systems that already support health professional degrees or certifications, an intentional partnership with a higher ed institution can provide options for tuition discounts, encourage ease of application and acceptance to desired programs, enable collaboration for clinical rotations, and match curriculum with specific healthcare needs.
- For higher ed institutions, a partnership with a health system can enhance employment prospects for graduates, open new opportunities for program expansion to enhance the skills of the health system’s employee population, and provide clinicals, internships, and other experiential learning opportunities to students in health professional programs, as well as preceptors and additional classroom space. Health system partners may also be willing to subsidize the tuition of certain students, including current employees or students who pledge to work for the health system for a certain period following graduation.
To realize the full benefits of such a partnership, both parties must have a clear vision of what they hope the partnership will achieve, then structure the partnership to optimize their ability to meet their individual and collective goals. While many partnership options exist, there are some common issues that the partners should address to ensure the success of any approach to partnership.
Ensuring a partnership’s success
A successful health system/higher education partnership requires a focus on the following issues:
- Market needs. For higher ed institutions, market analysis related to the potential of health professional programs should assess the workforce needs of prospective health system partners, as well as the needs of various student populations (e.g., 18- to 22-year-olds, adult learners, etc.) who might be interested in these programs. This analysis should also consider which other institutions are already offering competing programs in this space, and where there are gaps between current program offerings and health system needs.
- Student needs. For health systems interested in developing a talent pipeline with higher ed partners, an understanding of what students want from their future employers will help ensure that the pipeline created through the partnership produces a reliable stream of long-term employees. For example, nursing school graduates might prefer a rotation through different units or specialties when they start their career, and health systems would be wise to take student preferences into consideration if they are useful for the organization.
- Communications. Health systems and higher ed institutions are complex organizations, with many operating silos that can prevent effective communication about educational options and opportunities from reaching those who most need the information (i.e., prospective and enrolled students and health system employees). Both partners will want to implement and continue to strengthen a communication strategy that ensures the timely and consistent delivery of information about health professional programs across the organization.
- Transparency. Partners should have a clear understanding as to who is responsible for various aspects of the partnership operations and strategic initiatives, and when and why they are expected to act. Partners should also clearly articulate and share their goals and expectations for the partnership.
- Trust and visibility. There is always an element of risk in a partnership, including the risk that one partner’s reputation may be damaged by the actions of the other (especially in cases where the partners share a name or brand). Building a relationship of trust built on consistent and open sharing of information and follow-through on obligations will help mitigate these risks.
- Accountability. The partners must, of course, be accountable to each other, but also insist on the accountability of those who benefit from their partnership. If, for example, students agree to commit to a certain period of employment with a health system partner as a condition of a benefit such as a tuition subsidy, that commitment must be enforced (e.g., requiring that the student pay back the subsidy if the term of employment is not met). If either partner feels it is not receiving the full benefit of its investment, the partnership’s long-term viability will be threatened.
There is already a critical need for health professionals, and that need will continue to grow. Strong, enduring partnerships between health systems and higher ed institutions will help ensure that this need is met. Further, active partnership will enable both parties to be more responsive to evolving needs for new skills and capabilities, together building a broader and better health professional workforce.