BHS offers nurses chance for degrees

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BHS, the parent company of Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, announced the program yesterday and unveiled the 15 students who will take part in the inaugural class.

"We have made special investments in our facilities, our technology and in our people," said David Phelps, BHS' president. "This program is special in that it allows us to invest in the continued development of our staff."

The program is a partnership between BHS and Elms College of Chicopee. The nurses will attend Elms-taught classes at Berkshire Medical Center's Hillcrest Campus and will be given paid time off for their studies. BHS will pick up the entire tab — including the cost of books — and the nurses will be able to continue working and earning a living while they get an advanced degree.

Students will complete the Elms program in two years and one quarter, emerging with a bachelor's in nursing. For graduates, the new degree can mean a small increase in pay — a boost of $1 an hour for BMC nurses, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association — but it also is a step toward a role in management or a master's degree.

BHS is hoping to increase the educational level of its staff, said Helen Downey, the company's chief operating officer. She said that about a third of its registered nurses have bachelor's degrees, and that the company's goal is two-thirds.

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According to a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there is a correlation between the educational level of nurses and patient outcomes. The study found that a 10 percent increase in the proportion of nurses holding a bachelor's degree was associated with a 5 percent decrease in the likelihood of patients dying within 30 days of admission and in the odds of failing to save patients with serious complications.

Nursing is a complicated job, Downey said, and RNs need advanced, critical-thinking skills to catch complications and to navigate complex situations.

As with all health care providers, Berkshire Health Systems has been coping with a national shortage of nurses. For several years, the company has paid the tuition for its employees to attend Berkshire Community College's nursing program, which grants an associate degree to graduates.

Karen Fusini was a licensed practical nurse at Berkshire Medical Center. In 2005, she used the BCC program to become an R.N. at Berkshire Health Systems' expense. Now the hospital will pick up the tab as she pursues her bachelor's degree.

"This is something that I thought was only a pie-in-the-sky dream," Fusini said, "especially when you are working and have family responsibilities. I didn't think my family and friends would be up for it. But thanks to the generosity of the scholarship program, Berkshire Health Systems has made it possible."


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