Nurse Leaders Join Together in "Historic" Education Initiative

Pamela Austin Thompson leads new RWJF program to help more nurses advance their education and enter the workforce.

    • May 29, 2012

When Pamela Austin Thompson decided to become a nurse four decades ago, she wanted a bachelor’s degree in nursing. But before she could enroll in a baccalaureate program, she had to research the benefits of the degree and convince her father it was worth the considerable financial investment.

She is now making a similar case to aspiring nurses. As CEO of the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE), Thompson, MS, RN, CENP, FAAN, is teaming up with three other major nurse organizations to lead a nationwide effort to help new nurses earn baccalaureate and higher degrees in nursing and transition into practice.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the new program—called Academic Progression in Nursing (APIN)—represents an historic collaboration among four of the nation’s largest nursing groups: AONE; the American Nurses Association (ANA); the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN); and the National League for Nursing (NLN). The four groups together comprise the membership of the Tri-Council for Nursing and reflect three key areas of nursing: practice, education, and leadership. Their collaboration underscores the importance of the Tri-Council’s shared mission to create a more highly-educated nursing workforce to better meet patient needs.

The Tri-Council has worked together on other issues in the past, but the new APIN collaboration is “historic because the grant is going to one organization on behalf of the Tri-Council, and the Tri-Council organizations are all supportive of that,” said AACN CEO and Executive Director Polly Bednash, PhD, RN, FAAN. “Today’s work environment is so complex that we have a responsibility to help our nursing workforce to progress in their education so they can deliver the highest quality care to the patients they serve,” Bednash said, articulating a view shared by all leaders of the Tri-Council.

To be sure, nurses prepared at the associate-degree and diploma levels make enormously valuable contributions to the field and to patients in their care. But more highly-educated nurses can do even more to ensure that patients—who are living longer, are more acute, and often managing multiple chronic conditions—have access to highly-skilled, patient-centered care across the entire care continuum. That’s the conclusion of a groundbreaking report on the future of nursing released by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2010. It recommends that 80 percent of the nation’s nurses have baccalaureate degrees by the year 2020; currently, about half of the nation’s nurses have baccalaureate or higher degrees.

“Without a better educated workforce, we will not be able to meet the needs of a rapidly aging and more diverse population, solve the shortages of primary care providers and faculty, improve care coordination and in other ways meet emerging needs,” Thompson said.

The new program aims to jumpstart the move toward a more highly-educated nursing workforce by supporting state-level groups known as Action Coalitions that are working to reach the IOM report’s educational goals. APIN was launched in March by the Tri-Council for Nursing. In its first phase, it will support nine Action Coalitions that are working to advance academic progression and to ensure demand for baccalaureate-educated nurses. Additional funding will be available after the first two-year phase to allow states that have met or exceeded their benchmarks to continue their work.

APIN also aims to increase the diversity of the nursing workforce, which is predominantly white and female. Successful APIN grantees will have strong plans in place not only to increase the number of baccalaureate-prepared nurses but also to diversify the nursing workforce in their states. Learn more about the APIN initiative here.

Academic progression in nursing is a high priority for the Foundation, said Susan Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, senior adviser for nursing at RWJF. “The APIN initiative will help ensure that our nurses are prepared in all settings and that we have a larger and stronger pool of nurses ready to move to the next levels of education to fill faculty positions and advanced practice nursing roles.”

Marla Weston, PhD, RN, CEO of ANA, agrees. The APIN initiative will “really move the needle on educational preparation in this country and will prepare nurses to serve in settings where they are needed most, especially in community settings where more and more care is moving,” she said. “We are entering a new era where nursing associations are coming together and reaching common ground to ensure that our nurses are ready for the future.” Thompson, she added, is a great person to lead the APIN initiative.

Taste for Leadership. Thompson began her career as a nursing assistant in a convalescence home. In the years since, she has worked in a range of settings, including various hospitals, educational facilities and advocacy organizations. She has specialized in areas ranging from pediatrics and maternal-child health to psychiatric and emergency nursing care. And she has held titles including staff nurse, nurse manager, nurse educator, vice president and, now, association leader.

Before joining AONE, Thompson was a vice president at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where she spent 14 years as leader of maternal and child health and psychiatry. In this position, she helped create a children’s hospital, moved an entire medical center to a new space, created a new psychiatry service, oversaw a perinatal outreach program, and developed a strategic plan for the medical center.

She quickly learned she had a knack—and a penchant—for leadership. “I enjoyed the ability to take peoples’ ideas and implement them,” she said. “When you’re leading people, you can help them realize their dreams. I loved watching that happen.”

She also delved into international work while at Dartmouth. She traveled to Armenia in the 1990s—just as the Soviet Union was breaking up—on behalf of the U.S. State Department to evaluate some of the relief work after the devastating earthquake there. She also taught nursing in Russia and continues to work with partners in Croatia to create nursing leadership development opportunities “When something presented itself, even though it may not have been on my list, I never turned away from it,” she said.

Thompson also took on more formal association leadership roles during this time. She was elected president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, the first nurse executive to serve in that position. And she joined AONE and earned a seat on its board before becoming its CEO in 2000. Taking the job meant uprooting her family and moving to suburban Washington, D.C., but “it was the best decision I’ve ever made,” she said.

It was a good one for the nurses, and the patients they serve, too, especially now that she is taking on her new role as leader of the APIN program, Tri-Council leaders said. “Pam will be exquisite for this role,” said NLN Chief Executive Officer Beverly Malone, PhD, RN, FAAN. “She’s one of the most mindful decision-makers and reflective leaders that I know.”

As head of AONE, Thompson also is an expert in the practice of nursing and will be able to reach out to hospitals and employers—and that, said Malone, “is where the rubber meets the road.”