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    Learning to Be a Nurse Anesthetist — from a Distance

    By Nancy Deutsch, RN, contributor. 

    The inaugural class of the nation’s first accredited nurse anesthetist distance-learning program, offered by Mountain State University in West Virginia, is about to graduate, and these nurses will be very much in demand.

    “Most nurses graduate from anesthetist programs with about 10 job offers,” said Wayne Ellis, Ph.D., CRNA, who is program director of Mountain State’s nurse anesthetist program.

    While there are approximately 100 nurse anesthesia programs in the United States, Mountain State is the first school to offer the master’s program in a distance-learning format, Ellis said.

    Traditional programs demand that students come to the university, stay on campus and conduct clinical placements that are close to the university, according to Ellis. “This entails a major move and disruption of the family for basically three years.”

    Mountain State University’s program is different. Students must attend for 30 straight months, but the majority of the course work, and much of the clinical placement, can be completed near the student’s own home.

    MSU students can attend 29 clinical sites, including sites in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Tennessee. Doctors’ offices and hospitals that hire nurse anesthetists are usually willing to accommodate students, and to have staff act as preceptors, because they hope to lure students to work there after graduation, according to Ellis. He also estimates that about 25 percent of the anesthetist workforce is expected to retire in the next five years, and an individual hospital can save up to $75,000 by hiring a student rather than going through a headhunter to fill a position. The majority of rural hospitals rely on nurse anesthetists.

    “The clinical preceptors are excellent and feel like they are a vital part of the program,” he added.

    Ellis and assistant program director, Ann Bostic, often travel to the clinical sites to help students and to evaluate their progress.

    The students initially complete 15 months of lecture work, which is provided to them on DVDs. On the DVDs, a teacher holds classes, much as if the student were attending in person. “They create a classroom at their convenience,” Ellis said. “The lectures get changed every year because the data changes.”

    The students must also attend the university for three 12-hour days every three weeks so they can work in the simulation labs, Ellis said.

    The total cost for the program, including books, fees, and tuition, comes to approximately $60,000. This does not include what the student also pays for transportation to the Beckley, West Virginia, campus every three weeks, or for accommodations while they are there.

    The educational investment should be well worth it, however. After graduation, students will find that they are well compensated. New nurse anesthetists can earn $120,000 a year, and significantly more after gaining several years of experience.

    Michael Ratliff, 34, of Lebanon, Virginia, is about to finish the course at MSU. He always wanted to become a nurse anesthetist, but couldn’t uproot his family. “The thing that most appealed to me was the distance education side of it,” said Ratliff, who worked in critical care before the program. “Picking everyone up and moving them was not feasible.”

    “I think it’s a good program and will only get better,” he said, but noted that distance education is not for everyone. “The hardest thing is that it’s not for people who are not self-motivated. Make sure you realize you have to be self-directed to succeed.”

    Students are told that the course requires so much work they will be unable to maintain an outside job while doing the program, which Ratliff found to be true.  He initially worked one day a week, but gave it up a few months into his studies.

    “It’s a completely new aspect of study” compared to what he learned in nursing school, Ratliff said. The course is heavily concentrated on science, and “the level of knowledge is immense.”

    The level of interest from potential employers was also high. “The demand is such that I was offered a job at every site I’ve been to,” he reported. He chose to stay at the hospital closest to home.

    Ratliff is one of the program’s first 14 students who graduate October 27, and another four will graduate between December and March, as they are still completing their theses.

    Mountain State’s new program is quickly becoming very popular. The staff members are already interviewing for 2009 admissions and will have to narrow down the applicants to choose their next 30 students, Ellis said. All applicants must have a nursing degree and at least one year of post-graduate experience.

    Ellis was involved in the distance program’s development and is very excited to see the first students graduate and become full-fledged working members of a profession he himself enjoys. “I’m almost ready to walk on clouds myself.”


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