(UM News Service) The University of Montana recently secured $3.6 million from the Health Resource and Service Administration to bolster the nursing workforce across Big Sky Country.

The federal grant will fund a new training program implemented by three UM organizations: the Office of Health Research & Partnership, the Missoula College Nursing Program and the Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development.

OHRP Director Lily Apedaile said Montana is experiencing a healthcare workforce shortage, especially in the nursing field.

“Rural Montana is particularly feeling the effects of this shortage,” Apedaile said. “This new nurse training program developed at Missoula College will create a pathway for licensed practical nurses in Montana to quickly upskill to become registered nurses.

“We see this program as a key part of addressing the nursing shortage by developing a needed step in the nursing career pathway,” she said.

The new LPN-to-RN Bridge Program will use an online, accelerated training model to upskill licensed practical nurses to become registered nurses.

She said the program will develop prior learning assessments to grant credit for experience LPNs have gained in their current role, which will allow them to bypass certain courses.

The program also will focus on public health nursing and health equity in Montana, which are emerging areas of need in the state. A key feature of this program will be allowing LPNs to do their classroom instruction through an online platform while continuing to complete clinical training in their community. The application process for the new program is expected to open in spring 2024, with the first cohort of nursing students starting in summer 2024.

“The Missoula College Nursing Program is excited to be able to offer a pathway for rural LPNs to achieve RN status in a short period of time while working in their communities,” said Linda Barnes, Missoula College Nursing Program director. “This grant will help to change the lives of many working nurses who are unable to travel long distances for continued education

A major focus of the grant is working with rural communities. The LPN-to-RN Bridge Program will partner with rural Montana healthcare facilities to support their efforts in designing career pathways for employees.

In addition to the upskilling component of the program, the funding will support RNs at partner facilities to serve as clinical instructors for LPN students. These RN preceptors will receive specialized training to strengthen the nursing education workforce.

“This program will be an important part of recruitment and retention of nurses in rural communities by allowing existing LPNs to stay and train in their hometowns while also increasing the number of nurse educators in rural Montana,” Apedaile said.

Barnes said rural facilities will benefit from the increased knowledge base of their current employees.

“One goal of the grant is to reach underserved areas in Montana with LPNs RNs,” she said. “This grant will help to facilitate the continued education of essential healthcare workers in these rural areas.”