Hawaii Pacific University is opening a new school dedicated to nursing that university officials hope will help address the state’s nursing shortage.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put a lot of stress on Hawaii’s medical workforce, pushing many employees to the point of burnout. This week, the Healthcare Association of Hawaii said as many as 1,000 medical professionals were out sick because of Covid.

Jennifer Walsh, senior vice president and provost of Hawaii Pacific University, said that the university has long had a nursing program but hopes the creation of a dedicated school will help fuel an expansion of enrollment.

The university has an in-person bachelor’s degree program with about 150 students per year as well as in-person master’s degree and doctorate of nursing practice programs. It launched a new online master’s degree program this past fall that Walsh said is poised to grow dramatically with the opening of the new school, from about 30 students to at least 600.

HPU Hawaii Pacific University signs located at the Aloha Tower Marketplace campus.
The Hawaii Pacific University is restructuring its undergraduate and graduate programs and opening up a dedicated school of nursing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii’s shortage of medical professionals is such that the state had to bring in hundreds of personnel last year to help address hospitalizations caused by the coronavirus surge due to the delta variant.

The state has also requested more than 700 support staff to help address the ongoing omicron surge, with 4,578 new cases and three new deaths reported Sunday. The seven-day positivity rate was 20.7%.

Hawaii had 248 people hospitalized with Covid on Sunday — far fewer than the peak of the delta surge but still a concerning number given the record-breaking case counts, staff shortages and the need to treat patients with problems not related to the coronavirus.

Demand for nurses is a nationwide problem. NPR reported this week that the shortage has prompted many hospitals to recruit nurses internationally.

The need to attract more nurses has been a longstanding issue for Hawaii. Kaiser nurses narrowly avoided a strike during contract negotiations this past fall. Hawaii’s high cost of living has made it difficult to recruit health care professionals, including nurses, even apart from the pandemic.

Walsh said Hawaii Pacific University’s in-person undergraduate nursing program could grow to enroll 200 students if there’s enough demand.

“As the state needs more registered nurses, we’re prepared to meet that community need,” she said.

One barrier that might make it hard to expand enrollment is the difficulty in obtaining clinical placements for students. Walsh said that since the pandemic began fewer students have been allowed to work at each clinical placement, requiring faculty to find more options than they needed previously.

Another challenge is the cost of attendance. Tuition for the undergraduate nursing program may exceed $30,000 per year, but Hawaii residents with financial need may be eligible for scholarships, Walsh said.

The university plans to launch a national search for a dean for the new school of nursing in a few weeks and is in the process of hiring faculty for the new school. Walsh said so far, they’ve received lots of interest in their postings.

She noted many nurses are retiring or looking for alternative work due in part to burnout from the pandemic.

Hawaii Pacific University’s new school of nursing won’t be the first in the state. The University of Hawaii also has a school of nursing. Students also can study nursing at Chaminade University.

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