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$2-million fundraising initiative:

Fast-track PhD program named for Dean Starck tackles faculty shortage

Published: March 10, 2011 by David Bates, UTHealth School of Nursing


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At Trevisio Restaurant, Oct. 28, for a celebratory event shared by donors, UTHealth School of Nursing faculty members, and the AccPhD Scholars and spouses.(Photo by John Everett.)

(LEFT to RIGHT)1. John Null, Trustee, The George Foundation
2. Dee Koch, Grant Director, The George Foundation
3. Larry R. Kaiser, MD, FACS, UTHealth President
4. Dean Starck
5.Tom McNutt, Trustee, The George Foundation
6. Mike Wells, Chairman, The George Foundation

Throughout her more than 25 years as dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Nursing, Patricia L. Starck, DSN, RN, has been a pacesetter in developing innovative academic programs to help reduce the statewide nursing shortage and strengthen nursing’s role in meeting society’s changing healthcare needs.

“We turn away more than 9,000 qualified prospective nursing students annually in Texas because there are not enough nursing faculty members to teach these students,” said Starck, who also is the John P. McGovern Distinguished Professor of Nursing. “The bottleneck to balancing supply and demand for nurses is a shortage of nursing faculty.”

Nationwide, studies show, only 12 percent of nurses have a master’s degree and fewer than one percent hold a doctoral degree. Furthermore, it is estimated that 300 doctorally prepared nursing faculty members across the nation retire each year. Only 400 new PhD graduates are produced annually, and many go into jobs other than faculty positions.

“We are barely keeping up with replacements and are not able to grow student enrollment at a time when demand for nurses is expected to increase by 86 percent before 2020,” said Starck.

UTHealth’s creative response to the shortage of nursing faculty is the school’s new Accelerated PhD (AccPhD) program. A successful $2-million fundraising initiative will provide fully funded stipends to allow doctoral candidates to earn their PhD in nursing within three years rather than the traditional eight years. The accelerated curriculum, which includes 66 post-master’s credits, affords the same study plan and rigorous requirements as the traditional doctoral program.

Each student accepted into the pilot group of 10 scholars agreed to provide at least three years of service as nursing faculty at the UTHealth School of Nursing or elsewhere in the Texas Gulf Coast region after graduation. If each AccPhD graduate teaches for just three years, Starck noted, an additional 300 nurses could be added to the region. If all 10 AccPhD graduates embark on a teaching career of about 20 years, this number could grow to 2,000 additional nurses.

“We are committed to addressing the statewide and national nursing shortage through innovative new educational programs,” said Starck. “The unique aspect of the AccPhD initiative is that it will be philanthropically funded – a remarkable achievement during two of the most difficult economic years in memory.”

Support mostly came from local healthcare organizations and foundations, as well as the nursing school’s volunteer Advisory Council (which not only championed this cause in the middle of a recession, but also achieved 88 percent gift participation by its membership and collectively contributed $186,000).

“I was encouraged by the support that we received from many of the hospitals in the area for our Accelerated PhD program, so that we can educate more nurse educators,” said Larry R. Kaiser, MD, president of UTHealth. “Almost everybody recognizes the importance of this, including the State of Texas, which provided 35 million additional dollars for the education of nursing school faculty during the last legislative session.”

Spurred by a $500,000 challenge grant from The George Foundation of Fort Bend County, a successful fundraising effort was directed by the school’s development office with leadership by members of the School of Nursing Advisory Council, chaired by George R. Farris. The AccPhD initiative was conceived as a tribute to Starck’s 25 years of service as dean of the nursing school and has been named in her honor: “The Patricia L. Starck Accelerated PhD Scholars Program.”

“Dean Starck has done such a wonderful job recruiting the best nursing faculty that it was natural for the Advisory Council to want to support her efforts and also honor her 25 years as dean by taking a leadership role in this exciting project,” said Farris.

The George Foundation wanted to address the root cause of the nursing shortage, and their challenge required raising $1.5 million by July 1, 2010, to obtain the foundation’s $500,000 match. Despite the national economic downturn and related decline in philanthropic gifts, the AccPhD fundraisers exceeded the George Foundation challenge and surpassed its $1.5-million mark by nearly $100,000.

“Increasing the number of nurses to serve the health needs of the community remains at the forefront of healthcare news, and The George Foundation believes that the partnership it has formed with the UTHealth School of Nursing is addressing this important issue and is doing it effectively and in creative ways,” said board member Gene Reed. “Together, the Foundation and the School of Nursing can attain a better pathway to solving the nursing shortage.”

“I can’t say enough about the persistence and leadership of chair George R. Farris,” said Starck. “Thanks also go to Phil Ferguson, chair of the school’s Advisory Council, and our Dr. Tom Mackey, along with our hard-working friends Kenneth Lewis, Bette Thomas, Sheri Henriksen, Peggy Barnett and Flo McGee, who were invaluable behind the scenes.”

“What was amazing about this fundraising initiative is the way a group of active and engaged volunteers came together to run the show – from making visits along with our dean, to opening doors at foundations, to following up again and again,” said Gail M. Singer, development director at the UTHealth nursing school. “I would like to think our experience will give hope to fundraising professionals who are struggling in this economic downturn.”

“I am, of course, deeply honored that this project was undertaken as a way to mark my 25 years as dean of the UTHealth nursing school,” responded Starck. “But, best of all, if we can create an innovative new educational program while also helping to resolve the nursing shortage – well, that’s a win-win scenario!”

A committee chaired by Mara M. Baun, DNSc, selected the 10 AccPhD students from among 34 applicants for fall 2010 admission.

AccPhD scholars honor donor organizations, teach others

“In addition to financial support, those selected for the AccPhD program are designated as named Scholars – which is a distinction a graduate will carry throughout a professional career,” said Starck.

Each doctoral scholar carries the title of an organization that made a gift to the AccPhD initiative of at least $60,000 per year for three years. These named scholars will represent: The George Foundation (two scholars), Memorial Hermann Hospital System, Kissito Healthcare, Texas Children’s Hospital, the Vivian L. Smith Foundation, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the Hamill Foundation, the Cullen Trust for Health Care and the School of Nursing Advisory Council.

“By a conservative estimate, a nurse cares for 1,000 patients every year,” said Starck. “The Accelerated PhD program would mean that at least 100,000 patients benefit from the top-flight skills of these new nursing graduates annually. The impact on health care in our community and on the state’s nursing shortage crisis would be very significant.”

Applicants to Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs at the UTHealth School of Nursing totaled 2,837 this year, compared to 1,569 in FY 2009. The school’s enrollment for fall 2010 totaled 891 students at all levels – an increase of more than 16 percent over fall 2009. Ninety of these students, including the 10 AccPhD Scholars, were enrolled in doctoral studies.

“I anticipate this program becoming a national model for addressing the nursing faculty shortage,” said Starck. “But, most important, I hope that the benefit to health care in our region and the impact on the state’s nursing shortage will be significant and of lasting value.”