Saint Francis donating $500,000 to Connors State College nursing program

Muskogee County and two adjoining counties are expected to see a 30 percent jump in the need for registered nurses by 2016.

To help ease the Eastern Oklahoma version of a state and nationwide nursing shortage, a local institution is stepping up to make a major investment in the future.

Saint Francis Health System will be donating $500,000 to help expand the nursing program at Connors State College, said Jon Dallis, digital content administrator at the college. The funds will support the addition of two new faculty members, he said.

Saint Francis, the parent of Saint Francis Hospital Muskogee, also has provided scholarships to offset students’ educational expenses while enrolled in the Connors State College program.

Lisa Wade Berry, executive director of the Eastern Oklahoma Health Care Coalition, said the area’s nursing shortage is expected to worsen over the next decade.

“Health care is an important economic engine,” Berry said. “There are always going to be jobs and jobs that pay a good living wage.”

Berry cited a study completed in 2016 predicting a 31 percent increase in need for registered nurses in Muskogee, Wagoner and McIntosh counties by 2026. The study was prepared from data compiled by Economic Modeling Specialists International and indicated there were 787 registered nursing positions in the three counties last year with an anticipated 1,028 registered nursing jobs available by 2026.

The median hourly earnings for a registered nurse in Muskogee, McIntosh and Wagoner counties in 2016 was $26.28, the study said.

“For people considering a career, nursing and the health care field is a wise investment of time and money,” Berry said. “There’s a definite need to increase the number of people in the pipeline” as far as training future nurses and health care workers.

Over the past year, between June 2016 and June 2017, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission in July reported that more than 20 percent of the 10,889 jobs added to the state’s economy in the last year were in the health care and social assistance field. That job sector accounted for 2,400 of the new jobs added statewide in the past year, or about 22 percent.

For Eastern Oklahoma, in addition to an aging population, a factor expected to accelerate the need for nurses and health care workers in general in coming years is the 469,000-square-foot expansion by the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah on the W.W. Hastings Hospital campus. Over time as the facility is completed in 2019, it is expected to create more than 800 additional health care related jobs, CN officials said.

The goal of the relationship between Saint Francis and Connors College is to increase the number of registered nurses in Oklahoma, particularly in the Muskogee area, said Dr. Ronald Ramming, president of Connors State College. That move should help positively impact the state’s acute nursing shortage and low national ranking for numbers of registered nurses for population size, Ramming said.

“We are very grateful that this grant will allow us to grow our program and provide highly trained nurses in Eastern Oklahoma,” Ramming said. “This is especially crucial with recent state initiated budget cuts to higher education.”

Jake Henry Jr., president and chief executive officer of Saint Francis Health System, said the system has a long history of providing support to local and regional educational institutions.

“Education is the bedrock of our social and economic development and is, in my view, the most important endeavor that we as a community, as businesses and as individuals can be engaged in,” Henry said.

“We are pleased to partner with Connors State College to support the growth and expansion of their nursing program,” he said. “This gift, like our other contributions to regional nursing programs, will certainly not solve our state’s nursing shortage, but we see it as another step toward increasing the number of nursing graduates in our region.”

The students receiving the Saint Francis scholarships will have a work requirement with Saint Francis Hospital Muskogee post-graduation, Henry said.

“The work commitment to Saint Francis Hospital Muskogee is designed to keep nurses trained locally in the community,” he said.

Joyce Johnson, chair of the nursing division at Connors, said the contribution is an important step.

“This contribution will be a tremendous help to the Nursing Program, which will allow the college to hire two additional nurse faculty and be able to accept more students into the program,” Johnson said.

Johnson said among the contributing factors for shortage are limits on the number of students that can be accepted into nursing school programs like that offered at Connors State due to a shortage of qualified instructors. That is an issue across Oklahoma, she said.

“Most nursing schools have that problem,” Johnson said.

At Connors State, the program has been able to accept 36 students for entry into the program, but there may be upwards of 100 applicants for the program, she said.

With the funds Saint Francis is providing the program should be able to take an additional 18 students into the program, she said. Just when that increase in enrollment will take place is contingent upon how soon qualified instructors can be found.

“There’s a shortage of qualified instructors, they have to be master’s prepared nurses and there just are not a lot of those around,” Johnson said.

A check presentation will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Saint Francis Hospital Muskogee in conference rooms C and D.

– Reprinted from the Muskogee Phoenix. Reach Mike Elswick at (918) 684-2954 or

If you go:

WHAT: Check presentation ceremony.

WHY: Saint Francis Health System commemorating a $500,000 donation to nursing program at Connors State College.

WHEN: 10 a.m. Tuesday.

WHERE: Saint Francis Hospital Muskogee, 300 Rockefeller Drive, conference rooms C and D.

WHO: Event is open to the public; officials from Saint Francis and Connors State College will be present.