Blake Oliviera (copy)

Citadel football player and nursing student Blake Oliveira, left, works with professor Dr. James Pelletier. The Citadel recently began offering a nursing degree program, given the state's shortage of professional nurses. Provided/The Citadel 

South Carolina has one of the most severe nursing workforce shortages in the country, but it may be making strides to make up the difference, a new report from the University of South Carolina shows.

The USC study shows nursing schools in this state for the first time are graduating more students with bachelor's than associate's degrees. USC researchers surveyed nursing school leadership; the findings represented graduation in the 2016-2017 year.

The finding is significant, researchers wrote, given recommendations from the Institute of Medicine that 80 percent of nurses should have at least a 4-year degree by 2020.

But given the limited numbers of nurses with that level of education, South Carolina's goals are more modest. At the end of the 2017 academic year, 50 percent of nurses in South Carolina had a baccalaureate or higher degree, according to the S.C. Office of Healthcare Workforce.

As the population in South Carolina grows in numbers and advances in age, the call to action for nursing schools to fill gaps in employment is a race against the clock. A recently released study by the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis shows South Carolina will need about 10,000 additional nurses over the next 12 years. A more modest estimate from a state agency puts the number at closer to 6,400.

Ronda Hughes, director of the Center for Nursing Leadership at USC, said the improvement in the number of nurses with higher degrees is likely due to efforts colleges and universities have made to make students' paths easier. 

A higher skill level is needed for today's nursing career, Hughes said. When she started out, she said she could memorize every cardiac medication. Now, that would be next to impossible, she said. Health care is becoming more complex, and so are the patients hospitals are treating. 

Hughes stressed South Carolina's nursing shortage is already severe.

"South Carolina really does have a problem right now," she said. "We don’t anticipate getting any better in the next few years."

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Hughes thinks funding from the state for scholarships and faculty training may be needed. And employers, including hospitals that are lacking nurses at the bedside, will have to look outside the state to recruit the nurses they need. 

Research has shown that more nurses in hospitals with more bachelor's degrees actually leads to fewer patients dying. Linda Lacey, director of the S.C. Office for Healthcare Workforce, said in an email nurses prepared with a bachelor's degree are more likely to continue their education and become teachers. 

The lack of professionals with a depth of experience has also presented a problem for training the new generation of nurses. More than half of South Carolina's nursing faculty are 51 or older, according to USC

Jeannette Andrews, dean of the College of Nursing at the University of South Carolina, told The Post and Courier in October that schools' faculty are also retiring, and given the limited number of people with advanced degrees in nursing, it hasn't been easy to replace them. Andrews said her program has lost 15 faculty members in the last several years.

Training opportunities are scarce for students, too, Andrews said. 

“We could accept more students into the existing nursing programs in our state if there were additional faculty and hands-on clinical training openings in hospitals to educate our students," Andrews said in a statement. 

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.