Gonzaga’s new Rural Nursing Workforce Consortium will train Washington nurses


Shane Ersland


Postsecondary education leaders plan to create a new program that will train rural Washington nursing students.

Lawmakers discussed Gonzaga University’s Rural Nursing Workforce Consortium at a House Postsecondary Education and Workforce Committee meeting on Wednesday. Dr. Brenda Senger, associate professor at Gonzaga, said the consortium aims to help increase access to care in Washington’s rural areas. 

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“We know the state of nursing and the workforce in Washington,” Senger said. “We know it’s hard for residents to get access in rural settings. And we know (there’s a) shortage of health professionals, especially now post-COVID, (and) the nursing workforce is shrinking. And a lot of our residents live in rural areas. We’re really dedicated to making sure our nursing education gets delivered to our rural students in their hometown, so they can stay and work in their communities.”

Senger cited data from a study conducted by the Center for Health Workforce Studies and the University of Washington. She said there are 888 registered nurses (RN) per 100,000 people in the state’s urban areas. Comparatively, there are 599 RNs per 100,000 people in rural Western Washington and 513 RNs per 100,000 people in rural Eastern Washington.

Due to the state’s dire need for rural nurses, Senger began collaborating with Eastern Washington University Area Health Education Center Director Jenna McDonald about developing a hub for nursing students. 

“Originally, the idea was that the hub would be a website. And when we started this, I said, ‘We have lots of websites. That’s not helping the problem. The nursing shortage gap is getting worse.’ So we brainstormed. The idea of a hub came from researching seven different online nursing programs around the nation, and then we met with three in person. And one we were looking at was North Dakota’s model of the rural nursing program.”

— McDonald

The research prompted McDonald to consider placing the consortium under the direction of the Washington State Office of Rural Health.

The consortium’s director would network with industry partners, including hospitals and clinics. It would also include a staff, an administrative assistant, and an advisory board, McDonald said. 

“We would like to have an advisory board made up of different health professionals,” McDonald said. “An RN educator would also act as a faculty member for this online program.”

The hub will begin with a pilot program that will be conducted at a community college, McDonald said.

“And then we’re looking at [working with] five to six employers in rural areas,” she said. “The employer will have the expectations that they’re going to support the student.”

Stakeholders have started conducting a needs assessment, and a researcher was hired to conduct data analysis. Senger said the consortium could be enacted in two to five years. 

“It begins with collaborating with community colleges. Right now, it’s looking like it’s an associate degree entry program. But we’re also going to be training nurses who might have an associate’s degree [working] at the bedside [and trying] to get their master’s. It’s a double training program. We have the initial program as our primary focus to get the nurses at the bedside, but then [also] training nurses that are already at the bedside to be our faculty and to be resident faculties in their communities.”

— Senger

Stakeholders have also researched Lower Columbia College’s Rural Outreach and Nursing Education program to help shape the program, Senger said. 

“We’ve been meeting with the creators of it,” she said. “It was distance learning for placebound students so they could stay in their own communities. We want to open this up to any community college that wants to do this.”

The legislature helped fund the consortium with $350,000 in general funds last year, but Senger said the initiative will need more funding this year. 

“The funding is to provide development of the program based on our rural needs assessment,” she said. “We’ve only been doing this for four months, so it’s really been exciting. We need some time to pilot a program, and then to evaluate it.”

Committee Chair Rep. Vandana Slatter (D-Bellevue) said legislators hope to help fund the consortium again this year. 

“We knew that it was a bigger, longer-term project, but it was something that a lot of people wanted to support and be able to plant some seeds that could grow,” Slatter said.