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DECATUR — With a looming shortage of primary care physicians in the United States, Millikin University on Thursday announced a new family nurse practitioner degree to help fill the void, with its first class starting in January 2019.

“(In the U.S.), 1.6 million people choose a nurse practitioner for their primary care,” said Pam Lindsey, director of the School of Nursing at Millikin University. “This profession is one of the fastest-growing healthcare jobs in the United States.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges said in a 2017 report that the nation faces a shortfall of up to 43,000 primary care physicians due to retirements by the year 2030. The report also noted nurse practitioners are alleviating some of the demand for primary care providers.

The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated there are 203,000 jobs classified as advanced practice registered nurses, including nurse practitioners, in the U.S. as of 2016. The bureau expects an additional 64,000 jobs, which currently has a median salary of $107,000, by the year 2026. 

Millikin launched its doctor of nursing Practice program in 2014, Lindsey said, which was the first doctoral degree offered at the university with two options: the nurse anesthetist and the nursing completion programs. Even then, the group that developed the curriculum planned to add a third track to the nursing program.

In 2015, the school conducted a study to determine what that third track should be, surveying 13 area hospitals and the students in the undergraduate program. Almost half the students intended to enroll in graduate school, and 36 percent wanted a nurse practitioner program option.

“Nurses are the heart and soul of any healthcare organization,” said Tim Stone, CEO of Decatur Memorial Hospital. The proximity of Millikin's advanced education opportunities can help in recruiting nurses, he added, and fill needs at DMH and HSHS St. Mary's Hospital with graduates of those programs.

Students who hold a bachelor's degree in nursing can complete the program in 36 months, Lindsey said, while those with a master's degree can finish in 30 months. Classes will be offered in a variety of formats: online, hybrid and face-to-face, as students indicated was their preference.

When finished with classes, students will be eligible for the national certification exam from either the American Academy of Nurse Practitioner Certification Program or the American Nursing Credentialing Center. Millikin is already accepting applications, Lindsey said.

The School of Nursing had considered adding a nurse practitioner program far back as 2005, said Deb Slayton, dean of the College of Professional Studies, but the faculty was not yet in place.

“This very important and relevant program has been purposefully and enthusiastically sought,” Slayton said. “It's the vision of a dozen different academic leaders and scores of faculty and staff over the past decade.”

Patrick White, president of Millikin, said he knows personally how important a role a family nurse practitioner can play, because his wife, Chris, is one.

“It would be hard to overestimate how significant this is,” White said. “This is very important stuff. James Millikin (the university's founder), I think, would be very proud of the combination of community service, practice, theory that comes together with this new degree possibility.

"As you know, Millikin is committed to being Decatur's university, to serving the city and Macon County and region with quality performance-based education and enhancing the life in the community.”

Millikin's ability to respond to changing needs in the community by providing such programs , White said, is one of its strengths, but people might not realize how much work and planning goes into it.

“Some people might say, 'Oh, they started a new program,'” White said. “This is extraordinarily complicated process of introducing a new program like this, and it's the farthest thing from easy to put together a program of the quality we unveil today.”

Tanya Andricks, CEO of Crossing Healthcare and a member of the Millikin Board of Trustees, is a Millikin graduate. Crossing, she said, serves a segment of the population that faces particular health challenges related to poverty, and with 20,000 local clients, the need for primary care practitioners is high.

“It's not simple to solve those (clients') healthcare problems,” Andricks said. “We have well-trained nurses, so we're better armed and better able to take care of those complicated patients who often don't have access to care. So this is a big deal.”

Provost Jeff Aper said finding ways to combine strengths, opportunities and needs of the community is the purpose of healthcare providers.

“That's what we've done here,” Aper said. “The rapidly evolving world of healthcare requires highly trained professionals who have the knowledge, the skills, the adaptability and the vision to serve people very well and help guide the development of an effective and efficient health care system in Illinois and across the United States.”

Access to primary care is important for catching and treating health issues before they become chronic and expensive, said Denise Smith, director of human resources at HSHS St. Mary's Hospital, and the shortage of primary care practitioners is both local and national. And people trust nurses, she added.

“Nursing, for the last 15 years, has topped polls as the most honored and ethical profession,” Smith said.

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