March 15, 2023

WCU Doctoral Candidate Facing Nursing Workforce Challenges Head On

nursing workforceNursing shortages have challenged the healthcare industry for years. As the U.S. population ages, health systems have faced retirement waves while demand for care simultaneously increases.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating these already sobering trends and further exposing the workplace challenges that nurses must learn to navigate.

Amidst this reality, a West Chester University Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) candidate has created an opportunity to enact positive change.

Donna Rugh, division manager in the Hospice and Palliative Care department at Main Line Health, encourages the 35 nurses and nurse practitioners she manages to prioritize their mental health.

“We’ve had to shift that experience of working more hours and watching COVID wreak havoc on our profession, our patients, and the systems we work in,” she said. “I always try to look for the bright spot or the silver lining in any tragedy, and I think the one positive we’ve seen is taking care of the caregivers.”

In that vein, this past January Rugh and a colleague started a four-part mental health program called Energizing Empathy. It’s an optional program for her nurses that emphasizes self-care and self-compassion, which is especially important for nurses who work in hospice and palliative care. With a workforce already under strain, Rugh hopes to help her staff avoid burnout.

“Home health can be isolating work, the burden can feel heavier,” Rugh said. “Our nurses really care about their patients. So, we work on taking intentional time for themselves, learning to say ‘no’ and setting boundaries.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 6 percent from 2021 to 2031, with about 203,200 openings for registered nurses each year.

Rugh says West Chester University is poised to help meet that demand because of the quality of its programming and its flexibility. The University has created a reputation that is recognized throughout the region. Rugh has seen that firsthand both at Main Line Health and other places she’s worked as a nurse.

“When we had West Chester University students, we were happy about that because we could be confident they knew x, y, and z as a bedside nurse,” she said.

The flexibility and affordability of the DNP program was a major draw for Rugh when she was considering pursuing a doctoral degree. Her program is primarily delivered online.

“With five kids, a husband, a demanding job, and aging parents, it allows me to make the degree work around my life,” she said. “There are a lot of unique programs that encourage all types of learners, like targeting the adult learner who has a degree in one thing but changed their mind. Having different entry points along the continuum of curriculum is unique and will bring more students into the workforce.”

As a bonus, Rugh sometimes comes to campus for her clinical hours, after which she’s able to take her kids to dinner. Rugh has three children who are currently pursuing degrees in public health, early education, and microbiology --- all at West Chester University.

“To address the nursing shortage, a lot of things need to happen,” Rugh said. “We need to continue to bring in students by offering them a good program at a good value. The question is: How do we make this affordable but keep the rigor necessary? West Chester University has been able to do that.”

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