Nurses have long been touted for practicing the art and science of patient care. And in years past, Madison Magazine and WISC-TV3 have taken note, highlighting nurses who have touched the lives of patients in meaningful ways. 

This year, however, we decided to focus on nurses as the key players they’ve become as health care evolves and becomes more complex to meet changing and growing demands. Because who has better perspective on needs, or more valuable recommendations for improvements, than nurses? 

To find the nursing professionals making a difference in three key areas—practice, leadership and innovation—we reached out to the local health care community. We asked nurses, doctors, administrators and others at Madison-area clinics and hospitals to highlight individuals impacting their peers, organizations and patients through best practices and bold new ideas. 

The seven nurses we highlight here combine hands-on patient care with work that often goes unnoticed by the public. From behind-the-scenes organization and research to in-the-field practice reaching sensitive or underserved populations, from being a voice for patients to connecting them to valuable resources, this is what modern nursing looks like.

Cynthia Phelan, Ph.D., RN  Nurse Scientist 

William S. Middleton Memorial VA Hospital

What do you do as a nurse scientist at the VA Hospital?  The majority of my work as a nurse scientist is conducting research and helping others learn how to conduct and use research to improve the care of patients. In 2010, I received a four-year grant to conduct a study related to sleep and memory. In that study, I am testing whether brain activity during sleep can help identify brain changes in individuals with early Alzheimer’s disease. I am also interested in promoting nursing research and collaborations among researchers from different disciplines. 

How is the field of nursing changing? The field of nursing has changed in so many ways during my career that it is sometimes difficult to reconcile that I am in the same field I started in. In the past, nurses relied a great deal upon physicians to direct their care. Many nursing schools were taught by physicians. However, patient care has become so complex and fast-paced that nursing has developed its own science and its own questions about how best to provide care. Also, the complexity of care requires teamwork. The role of pharmacy, social work, mental health and other disciplines is essential to effectively manage care now. Nurses often serve as facilitators among these disciplines, ensuring communication of information and coordination of services around the veteran’s needs.

What do you like most about your job?  Hands down, the veterans, my study subjects. I have never met a more inspirational group of individuals. I conduct overnight sleep studies that require a lot of time preparing the patient before and after sleep. These are the best times; during the course of preparation the veterans tell us stories about their lives, their families, their experiences. By the end of the study, we have gotten to know them. I’ve received calls and notes from the subjects thanking me for the opportunity to participate in the study. So I would like to believe their participation in the study has been important to them as well. The time I spend with them is truly a gift.   

What’s a project of which you’re particularly proud? Creating an advance care planning clinic. This is a clinic where patients and their families obtain information and guidance in making end-of-life treatment decisions. The aim of the clinic is to start discussions among family members when the patient is healthy, can understand his choices and can make his wishes clear. The idea for the clinic started with an ICU nurse, Shirley Herfel. During her years working in intensive care, she observed families struggling over decisions to stop or continue therapy when the patient was too ill or unable to speak for himself. I had observed this in my career as well. She asked if I would help her write a proposal to administration for a clinic to make certain patients had informed discussions about treatment choices. We created a team, reviewed the research about successful programs and drafted a proposal. The clinic was funded and has been very well received by the veterans and their families. 

What’s most helped you be successful in nursing? One word: Mentors.  

What qualities are needed to do a job like yours? A love of learning, persistence and the ability to see connections that others may not. It helps to enjoy people. It is not required but it makes work so much more fun. 

How do you feel at the end of the day? It depends. Working with veterans and students is very satisfying work. Writing grants and manuscripts is a bit more challenging. Finding a good mix is the key to happiness.

RNOutreach Registered Nurse, HEALTH ProgramMeriter-UnityPoint Health

What do you do as Meriter’s Helping Educate and Link the Homeless, or HEALTH, nurse? The HEALTH Program was founded in 2009 to link patients who are homeless in Dane County with primary care services and community resources and to provide health education. Since then, the program has significantly improved the well-being of more than one thousand individuals who struggled with homelessness.

I have been in this role for two years … I am able to help homeless individuals navigate the health system while linking them with the services that exist in the community. I feel like I am helping people achieve their best outcome in spite of the multiple health barriers they face.

Can you tell me about some of your patients? My patients are so varied. I see young people, older people, middle-aged and all races. Homelessness does not discriminate against anyone. A financial crisis can make just about anyone homeless and with that come cascading issues, including health concerns.

Are there common misperceptions surrounding your patients or your work? There are absolutely many misperceptions about my patients. Not all who are homeless have substance abuse issues. Not all who are homeless have mental illness. Yes, these are risk factors for homelessness but are not the sole reason why people are without consistent shelter. Look, no one wants to be homeless—no one wants to live in such a precarious situation. But, for some people, the decision to be on the street was the better option.

What do you like most about your job? I am inspired by the stories of survival, of resilience and of kindness and compassion I see and hear every single day. I am moved to serve those who are absolutely deserving of kindness and compassion but because of life’s circumstances may not be receiving this. I love helping people on their journey to reengage with society, seeing pieces begin to fall into place, and I love helping people begin to see themselves as worthy and valuable. Every day, I see the grace of humanity in those who had forgotten that this grace exists within them.

What are the biggest challenges in your job? Even though we are a resource-rich community, the systems are fragmented. It may not really appear fragmented, but for those who have a difficult time functioning in societal constraints, it is. I do what I can to be the link for patients. On a daily basis I collaborate with wonderful groups, such as Bethel Homeless Ministries, Porchlight’s Hospitality House, Tellurian’s PATH ReachOut and Saint Vincent De Paul Charitable Pharmacy ... But more collaboration is needed to address the health challenges that affect our community as whole, particularly the lack of mental health services.

What’s an experience in nursing or a patient you’ve served that stands out to you? I just worked with a patient over the course of several months. I helped him access BadgerCare and connect with a primary care physician. Once we got him in to establish with a physician, we learned he had terminal lung cancer. Since he was living in a tent, I worked with a number of different groups, Bethel Homeless Ministries, UW Patient Relations/Patient Resources Center and others, to begin to advocate for the patient. We were able to advocate for him to stay in a shelter during his treatment. Eventually, he became a patient at Agrace Hospice, where his life’s journey ended. And in the end he knew that he had community advocates and friends from the homeless community who were there with him, in one way or another.

When someone is homeless, the goals become very basic. The goal for him was to ensure that he died off the street, that he was not isolated, that he died with dignity.

It may not seem like much, but this was huge for him and for me. I saw people coming together to help and honor this man by helping to make his remaining time as good as it could be. Being indoors was a gift to him. Not being alone and not feeling alone was as much a shelter as any roof. This gentleman’s illness and final moments remind me that we all deserve dignity.

What qualities are needed to do a job like yours? Patience, resourcefulness, compassion. A good sense of humor. And a desire to tap into the resilience found richly among the homeless.

BSN, RN, SANE-A Co-Coordinators, SANE ProgramMeriter Hospital 

What do you do as co-directors of Meriter’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, or SANE, program?Baisa: As co-coordinators of the SANE program, we ensure that a SANE nurse is available 24/7 to provide medical forensic exams, in addition to the traditional nurse manager responsibilities. We also participate in multidisciplinary meetings such as the Dane County SART, or sexual assault response team, and we provide education to a variety of disciplines including law enforcement, health care providers and student organizations. 

The SANE program is staffed by registered nurses who have advanced education and instruction in medical-forensic examination and in psychological and emotional trauma … It is the only program of its kind in Dane County.

Tell us about your patients.Curran: The Meriter SANE program cares for about four hundred women, men and children each year from Dane County and many of the surrounding communities. They come from all socioeconomic classes, a variety of different cultures and differing sexual orientations.   

Baisa: We see patients from all walks of life, and all age ranges. While most of the patients we see are reporting sexual assault, we also see patients who have experienced intimate partner violence, as well as suspects of these crimes.  

Why do you serve as experts to not only health care professionals but also police, medical students and others?Curran: Part of the Meriter mission is to teach—there are many aspects of sexual assault, domestic violence and strangulation that are poorly understood within the general population. By educating on these important topics we are increasing awareness of the issues and how to better care for the victim within either the medical community or law enforcement.   

Baisa: Sexual assault can be a difficult topic for people to discuss, but it’s happening in our communities. Our patient numbers reflect that. It’s important for other disciplines to understand the work we do and how sexual assault and intimate partner violence can have a lasting impact on the health and well-being of not only the person directly affected, but their loved ones as well. If first responders and health care providers aren’t comfortable talking about this, how can we expect victims to come forward and receive the care they need?

Are there misperceptions about the work you do?Curran: YES! Perhaps the most frustrating misperception is that the victim is to blame if they were intoxicated. Thanks to TV shows that focus on forensic science, victims may expect that we can solve the case in just a few minutes. 

Baisa: Most people I talk to are surprised by the volume of patients we see, and that more than half are under the age of eighteen. I think a lot of the misperceptions involve our examinations of children and that the exams we do are very traumatic. Our nurses take as much time as we need to develop a rapport with our patients and to explain each and every step … The other common misperception I hear is that this line of work must be extremely stressful. This is the most rewarding job that I have had in all my years of health care experience.  

What’s one of the biggest challenges in your job?Curran: One of the biggest challenges of this job is the unpredictable nature. Most of the staff is on call for their shift. When a case presents, regardless of when within the shift, the nurse must complete the exam and interview, which can range from one to four-plus hours.

Baisa: I hear a lot of horrible things that patients have experienced, and I view the world a little differently than I did before doing this job. I’m beginning to realize that I need to take much better care of myself and to make sure that I make time to exercise and to find other ways to relieve stress.  

What would you change about your job if you could?Baisa: I would just love to see more SANE programs throughout the state. We see patients who have to travel an hour or more to receive our services.  

What’s an experience in nursing or a patient you’ve served that stands out to you?Curran: When a child hugs me at the end of a SANE exam, I feel as though I have accomplished my goal of providing a medical forensic exam in a nonthreatening manner. One of my most memorable SANE patients was nine years old; she made me a thank-you card that I still cherish.    

What keeps you going in such a challenging job?Curran: SANE nursing is a challenging job. What keeps me interested is the patient population, the science of forensic nursing and my staff.   

Baisa: I recognize there is a lot of work that needs to be done in regard to sexual assault and intimate partner violence response. I am always looking for ways to improve in regards to our care and how we work with other disciplines to ensure that victims are cared for.

What qualities are needed to do a job like yours?Curran: There are many qualities needed to excel at SANE nursing; some are caring, compassion, attention to detail and patience. 

Baisa: Empathy, compassion, assertiveness and realizing there is always something to learn!

RN  Cardiopulmonary Transplant CoordinatorUniversity of Wisconsin Hospital & Clinics

How did you get into nursing? Our daughter was born with cystic fibrosis and we knew that we would be involved with health care forever. When our daughter was five years old, I told my wife I thought she should become a nurse because she was so good at everything she did for our daughter; she said I was not climbing the corporate ladder at Lands’ End and told me to go become a nurse. And so I did.

What do you do as lung transplant coordinator at UW Hospital? I work with patients from referral to evaluation and transplantation. Our team follows them for life. It is very rewarding to see a patient with end-stage lung disease have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

Can you tell me about some of your patients? We have the best patients in the world! They have to work hard and focus on their health in order to survive. Lung transplant is very complicated and no one can do it alone. So I can’t talk about patients without including their families. We use a patient- and family-centered care model here at UWHC. As coordinators, we are the first person a patient would call if they are having trouble or are concerned about something. It is amazing to watch them get better.

What do you like most about your job? I love teaching! The opportunity to teach patients how to care for themselves is very gratifying. Additionally, I teach other nurses how to care for ventilated patients and occasionally I am a guest lecturer at Edgewood College. I’m especially glad to give back to the technical college system. I started my nursing education at Southwest Tech in Fennimore and enjoy working at Madison College. It is a privilege to help students start their health care profession. I like to use humor when I teach. Laughter decreases stress, which in turn increases learning.

How has the field of nursing changed? I am so glad that we don’t have to wear the hats anymore!  

One of your nominators said: “EVERYONE knows him, loves him, respects him. Every nurse in the hospital wants to work with him.” Why do you think this is? I try to be upbeat and like to have fun when appropriate.

What’s an experience in nursing that stands out to you? When I graduated from nursing school, I was afraid of two things: ventilators and teaching. I have been teaching a ventilator class for over twelve years and I love it! I flew to Florida to help take care of a patient on a ventilator who was taking his dream vacation. Sadly, we knew that this would be his last trip.

How do you unwind after a stressful day? I love spending time with family and friends. I also have a large vegetable garden and my wife and I do a lot of canning. Gardening is therapeutic. 

What keeps you going? The great teams that I work with. We support each other personally and professionally.

How do you feel at the end of the day? Exhausted! I can’t figure out why there is a nursing shortage!

MSN, RN, CPNP   Clinic Manager, George Fait Pediatric Specialty ClinicsAmerican Family Children’s Hospital

What do you do at the American Family Children’s Hospital? I manage the George Fait Pediatric Specialty Clinics, as well as have managerial responsibilities at the Waisman Center Clinics across the street from the Children’s Hospital. I’m responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of patient care that is delivered by the eighty-two staff members that I manage.

How is the field of nursing changing? Boy, is it ever changing! The things we can do for patients never cease to amaze me and what we now do on an outpatient is astounding. There are diagnoses that used to be inpatient for a lengthy period of time that are now cared for in a clinic or outpatient surgery center. Plus, the evolution of technology to keep up with things, including the electronic medical record, is remarkable.  

How have you applied innovation to your work at the Children’s Hospital?   I really like to help problem solve the challenges and opportunities that arise and think through how we can make things better, more streamlined. I think this is applied to my daily work, as there are small issues that arise that need quick responses and solutions and then there are the bigger systems issues that involve more staff and systems to implement a change. Either way, I like to involve the right stakeholders and work through the issues in hopes of finding the best solution possible, and when that doesn’t work, evaluating and coming up with the next best option. 

One great example of this is our recent quality improvement project to reduce our call abandonment rate in the clinic. We gathered provider representatives, schedulers, nursing, medical assistants, clinic leadership and Health Systems Engineering to evaluate our current state and develop a new workflow for handling our ten thousand incoming calls per month. Through the work of this group we were able to reduce our abandonment rate from roughly twenty-five percent per month to an average of eight percent per month and sometimes less.

Tell us about the “pop-off” locations you’ve helped create. Our pediatric specialty clinics continue to grow constantly, adding new providers or subspecialty clinics, which need space and resources. We have quickly outgrown our current clinic space and have had to look for other locations to provide services to our patients and their families while making this a seamless process to them. That has led me to have discussions and meetings with leadership and my manager colleagues to find open space in other clinics and then working to coordinate scheduling, nursing coverage, pediatric-centered atmosphere and so forth. For example, the demand for our pediatric urology services exceeded our capacity here at AFCH so we’ve expanded to our east side location. I’m currently in the process of helping establish a presence for our pediatric orthopedic team out at the east side location as well. This involves working with the team to identify days of the week that they can be out there, ancillary staff that will be needed, support staff, building of our electronic medical records for a new location and then informing our patients of the new location. It takes time and a lot of coordination with other departments to pull this together.

What do you like most about your job? I love the people I work with every day! They are such a terrific group that share in the dedication to providing excellent patient care. 

What’s one of the most challenging parts of your job? I think keeping up with the changes in health care can be challenging, but exciting at the same time. There are always new advances in research and patient care that drive changes in the way we provide care as well as balancing that with health care reform and insurance hurdles. 

What qualities are needed to do a job like yours? Perseverance, a good sense of humor and the ability to listen and be fair and honest.

What keeps you motivated? Seeing both the smile on that patient’s face as they come through the clinic as well as the satisfaction in my staff of knowing that we provided the best patient care. Also, wanting to make the clinics and the hospital the best place to receive care in and around the state.

MS, BSN, RN Community Parish NurseSt. Mary’s Hospital

What do you do as a parish nurse?  I am employed by St. Mary’s Hospital in partnership with the Triangle Community Ministry and have been in my current role as an advanced practice parish nurse for the past twelve years. St. Mary’s Hospital, the Triangle Community Ministry and the United Way of Dane County have all generously supported this nursing role for many years. 

Parish nursing, additionally known more inclusively as faith community nursing, is a “whole person” approach to health care offered within a traditional faith community or faith-based community ministry. We are experienced professional registered nurses, mature in our personal spirituality and faith, with current clinical nursing expertise necessary for this independent nursing role … Parish nurses have a number of gifts to offer their communities. These include integrator of health and healing, health advocate, health educator, personal health counselor, facilitator and developer of support groups, referral agent and liaison, developer and trainer of volunteers. How each nurse incorporates and develops the role is unique, specialized to meet the needs of the community they serve. 

You’ve been serving the Triangle Community since 2002. Tell us about that community.  I find that many people don’t know about this area across from Lake Monona, surrounded by three streets: Park, Regent and West Washington forming the triangular shape. Others may know it through the annual Triangle Ethnic Fest, celebrating the rich cultural diversity of this community every August.

I am one of three paid staff with the Triangle Community Ministry, … which has been bringing spiritual support and holistic health community nursing services to the residents of the Triangle neighborhood for over thirty years. TCM provides services that help residents overcome setbacks, identify goals, improve their life situation and connect with the community around them. 

Our services are available at no charge to any of the approximately 335 residents of the Triangle’s four low-income, government-subsidized apartment buildings, managed by Madison’s Community Development Authority. This housing is designated for the elderly and those with disabilities. Significant chronic health issues and/or major physical disabilities, compounded by fluctuating community health and social supports and funding, are daily challenges for about eighty-seven percent of the tenants living in this densely populated community 

Your nominator said you care for the mental, emotional, environmental and spiritual well-being of patients. How and why do you do this? I provide nursing services aimed at increasing an individual’s capacity for healthy choices, stress reduction and self-care of body, mind and spirit. I weave this whole-person care through all the services I provide, which include assessing health strengths and risks, monitoring chronic health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, mental health stability and the need for crisis intervention, fall risk, and understanding and proper use of medications and health treatment plans, especially after hospital discharge, emergency room or health provider visits. Often this requires assertive advocacy, role modeling to navigate the health care system, referral and follow-up with community health and social service providers. My role permits me to serve my clients in my office, in their apartments, in the hospital, in nursing homes, rehabilitation or hospice facilities, and I am able to provide support, advocacy and care coordination at appointments with health care providers. 

How do you stay motivated? Each morning I set my intention to be mindfully prepared for any situation, first aid needs, crisis that may arise. We have a saying in parish nursing, “Suit up and show up and let God do the rest.” No day is ever the same; plans are always subject to change, and we seem to be at the right place at the right time. This has been true for me many, many times.  

Can you tell us about your patients?  Each client I am privileged to serve as a parish nurse continues to confirm for me our human resiliency amid the longing to be heard, validated, appreciated, respected and loved individually and as a community. The value of the nurse healer and spiritual care in my practice is very clear to me. My clients are resilient and interesting people, with many gifts to share. I am constantly learning from them. And I love celebrating their successes—I am a natural party planner and enjoy bringing people together in a festive, fun, lovely atmosphere. I wish I had more time and resources as I would love to hostess a monthly gathering to acknowledge the good things people are doing.   

What would you change about your job if you could? Well, I don’t think anyone anywhere has ever said, “I’d like more paperwork, please.” So there you go …

How has nursing changed throughout your career? I have been in nursing for forty-one years—that pretty much says it all. The entire health care system is in flux at this time. I am personally gratified to see the emphasis on preventive health care, which community and public health nurses like myself have been advocating for years. Of course, now it is more driven by cost-saving benefits and less by a philosophical stance, but the positive outcome is long overdue! 

How do you unwind after a stressful day? A helpful prevention strategy for all nurses is preparing spiritually for the day, and taking pauses to re-center in the midst of a busy schedule reduces some of the normal stresses we all experience. Before each encounter with a client, I take a breath and send out a quick prayer requesting wisdom and extending gratitude to the many donors who I represent in this caring encounter. 

But after a long day, truthfully, I want to just relax, enjoy time with my husband and daughter and watch my political news to keep up, since I am very interested in public policy regarding health care and social justice issues. My family knows not to disturb me from 8 to 9 ... I am also currently trying to carve out more time for my creative activities and configure a home studio. If I ever retire, look for me in that studio or traveling with Nuns on the Bus.  

By Jenny Seifert

It may come as no surprise that for fourteen of the past fifteen years, nursing has topped Gallup polls as the most trusted profession in America. Yet, despite their likability, the fundamental role of the nation’s three million nurses—and largest health care profession—is often misunderstood. 

“The public doesn’t generally understand that nurses are knowledge workers,” says Joan Ellis Beglinger, who was an intensive care nurse for a decade before moving into a thirty-year career in administrative leadership, twenty-two years of which were at Madison’s St. Mary’s Hospital. Now “retired,” she shares her expertise in nursing governance as an independent consultant.

Underneath the observable, tangible qualities of a top nursing professional—her skills in administering shots or his compassionate bedside manner—lies a deep and holistic knowledge base about optimizing patients’ physical and emotional health, the application of which Beglinger calls the essence of the profession. 

Katharyn May, dean of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing, agrees that public perception of nurses as “nice people who know a few tricks” belies the true nature and level of their work. “A nurse is a healer who is committed to improving the human condition, using science, technology and themselves as the instrument to do that,” says May.

And, as contemporary health care transforms to meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, nursing knowledge is playing a pivotal and expanding role. With disease prevention and education explicit in the profession’s definition, nurses are well positioned to help the country achieve its new target of population health—keeping Americans healthy and out of the hospital. As such, there is a call to make more space at the table for nurses.

“Nurses are not only integral to the delivery of care, but they have to be at the table as full partners designing the health care delivery system,” says Beglinger. Full partnership is still a new concept to the medical community, but one that will model the future. As a female-dominated profession, nursing has seen its evolution follow that of women’s rights. For example, it was not long before Beglinger started her career in the mid-1970s that a nurse was expected to give up her seat for a physician in a meeting. 

Times have changed, however, and deliberate efforts have been made to create shared governance structures within health care, where nurses work as both autonomous professionals and as equal partners in team-based environments. With increased preventative care and improved population health as benchmarks for success, such teamwork has become ever more essential. 

“The interprofessional team is there to facilitate the patient’s ability to achieve the best health status they can,” says Beglinger, “but in partnership with the patient.”

Nowadays, the decision-making model is no longer “nurse (or doctor) knows best.” Patients are much more in the driver’s seat with regard to their own health. As the health care professionals who work most closely with patients, nurses essentially sit in the navigator’s seat, giving patients the information and tools they need to make informed decisions and manage their own health care outcomes. 

“Nurses can understand where the patient is coming from and work with that patient to have better outcomes,” says Doris Mulder, president of the Wisconsin Organization of Nurse Executives, which focuses on nurse leadership development, and vice president and chief nursing officer for Beloit Health System.

For example, nurses can be resources for people with a recent diagnosis, so the patient can independently manage his or her health at home and avoid a hospital visit. In fact, knowledge exchange across the interprofessional-plus-patient team will be key as health care delivery evolves from the fragmented, episodic care of yore into a seamless continuum of care.   

“It’s very easy to see the patient right where we’re taking care of them, but population health is really seeing [patients] throughout their time,” says Mulder, explaining that the care continuum emerges in part from the trend toward community-based health care settings, where disease prevention and health promotion happen. 

The rise of community-based healthcare is also increasing the need for nurses with higher levels of knowledge, namely advanced practice registered nurses, or APRNs, a category of master’s degree- and Ph.D.-prepared professionals that includes nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse midwives and nurse anesthetists. Rural and underserved communities, where APRNs often provide primary care, are especially in need. 

This demand may require legislative change, however, as Wisconsin is among thirty-one states that restrict APRNs from practicing as the fully independent professionals they have been trained to be. The state requires them to work under a collaboration agreement with a physician. In many settings, this means a physician must sign off on an APRN’s decisions, which can delay care. 

“Health care reform is moving so fast that advanced practice nurses are going to have to fit into the places where we have to manage the transitions, because that’s where people tend to fall into the hole,” says Dean May, pointing to long-term-care facilities, schools and community centers as places where APRNs, as well as nurses with Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing degrees, or BSNs, could fill the gaps. 

Nationwide, scope-of-practice restrictions aren’t the only impediment to nursing’s ability to adjust to health care’s shifting weight. A landmark report by the Institute of Medicine, the nation’s go-to for health care information, highlights the barriers nurses face and offers recommendations to overcome them, including positioning nurses as full partners in health care’s redesign and elevating the education levels of the nation’s nursing corps. Since the 2011 report’s publication, tremendous effort has been made to make sure it doesn’t just gather dust.

Co-leading the effort here is the Wisconsin Center for Nursing, or WCN, and the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, which spearhead the state’s Action Coalition for the Future of Nursing Campaign for Action, the nationwide movement to implement the IOM’s recommendations. Judith Hansen, WCN executive director, says among their priorities is bolstering the state’s nursing workforce and advancing nurse education, the latter a response to the IOM’s call for eighty percent of nurses to be equipped with their BSN degree by 2020.

Research shows the more educated the nurse, the better the health outcomes. Currently, 53.5 percent of Wisconsin’s nurses hold a BSN or higher. With a looming shortage of nursing wisdom in the state, growing this number is especially critical, cautions the WCN’s 2013 state-of-the-workforce report. The convergence of health care reform, an unprecedented glut of aging baby boomers and a pending rash of retirements from the nursing workforce could put the state short twenty thousand nurses by 2035. 

Hansen emphasizes the importance of both data and partnerships to fill the gap. For example, in light of limited enrollment capacity and a nursing faculty shortage, the four University of Wisconsin nursing schools successfully collaborated on a $3.2 million grant to provide funding to graduate-level students and postdoctorates in exchange for a multiyear commitment to teach at one of the universities. 

Despite these win-win efforts, Hansen thinks it will be difficult to reach the eighty percent mark. “We have an excellent state technical school system, and currently over 25,000 Wisconsin nurses are prepared with associate degrees,” she says. “That is a large number to advance, and we want to facilitate educational pathways in any way possible to remove barriers to BSN completion.”

Another significant need is for a more diverse nursing workforce in Wisconsin, of which only 6.4 percent are nonwhite and 6.9 percent are male. The data show that for better outcomes, the health care provider population should reflect its patient population, which is especially important as demographics change. 

“When you have diversity in nursing, you better serve the populations in terms of access, compliance with treatment and also just overall patient satisfaction,” says Hansen.

While the diversity numbers have yet to really budge, Hansen applauds Wisconsin for being among the few states to mandate annual nursing workforce surveys, which will help ensure that the nursing supply is meeting demand. She also believes that, despite the large contribution they make, nurses are only part of the equation.

“Community partnerships and collaborative approaches will take us a long way to create a healthier Wisconsin,” Hansen says.

Jenny Seifert is a Madison-based writer and science communicator at UW–Madison.