Need for geriatric nurses leads to new USM degree

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PORTLAND — The School of Nursing at the University of Southern Maine is offering a new master’s degree to address a shortage of health-care providers trained to care for older adults with chronic or complex illnesses.

The Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner degree will allow nurses to better “assess and manage acutely ill patients” in a variety of settings and will fill “a critical need, particularly given our state’s aging population,” according to Valerie Fuller, assistant professor of nursing.

She said the need for such highly trained nurses, who will be able to order, perform and interpret diagnostic tests, as well as prescribe medications and treatments and provide direct patient care management, is especially urgent for smaller rural hospitals.

This “nursing model has a unique emphasis on the health and well-being of the whole person” and will train nurses in advanced physical assessment, diagnosis and treatment of adults and older adults, Fuller said.

According to a recent Maine Department of Labor report, due to the state’s rapidly aging population, the greatest future job opportunities will be in the health care industry. In fact, the study predicts Maine will need to add more than 3,800 health care practitioner jobs in the next decade.

Mary-Anne Ponti, chief nursing officer at Central Maine Medical Center, said  since Maine has the oldest population in the nation, “expertise in gerontology acute care is a crucial need here, and this new program is a truly welcome step as hospitals evolve their care for an aging population.”

“USM’s new (nursing) program addresses Maine’s need for providers who can assess and manage acutely ill patients,” the university said in a press release. “The curriculum focuses on building core competencies in advanced health assessment, clinical decision making and diagnosis, advanced pharmacology and disease management.”

Fuller said at least eight students would need to enroll in the first class for the new master’s program to be viable. A total of 45 credits, along with mandatory clinical hours, is required to complete the program.

Applications for the spring 2019 semester are being accepted now through Oct. 1. More information can be found on the School of Nursing’s website at In order to qualify, students must have a minimum of two years of full-time RN experience.

In addition to diagnostic skills, nurses enrolled in the new practitioner program will also learn “important leadership skills (and how to) improve (overall) nursing, health care and health policy,” the press release said.

Fuller said the majority of nursing programs now available only prepare students to provide primary care and not the specialized skills needed to address acute, critically ill and traumatically-injured patients.

“Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioners can provide care in any setting in which the patient requires complex monitoring. This includes hospital or urgent, ambulatory and rehabilitative care settings,” she said.

While there is a need for geriatric health care providers in Maine, Fullers said the new nursing master’s degree at USM also prepares students to care for any adult, young or old.

Fuller said nurses enrolled in the new master’s program might be able to continue working while in school, but that would be dependent on “the individual, the type and flexibility of their work and the number of credits they’re taking per semester.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

USM nursing student Brianna White, left, listens for a heart murmur on a training mannequin as Assistant Professor of Nursing Valerie Fuller looks on.