Op-ed: Kentucky needs to continue education for registered nurses

Posted: May 8, 2019

This op-ed appeared in the Courier Journal on Monday, May 6.

Every day throughout Kentucky, 72,000 registered nurses (RNs) are on the frontlines for care delivery armed with knowledge, courage and compassion for patients, families and communities. 

Nearly a decade ago, strong advances started to occur in Kentucky to power up nursing knowledge after the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) landmark report on the future of nursing. 

In 2010, the IOM released The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health that included an action-oriented blueprint to prepare 80% of the nursing workforce at the Bachelors of Science in Nursing (BSN) level by 2020. 


It’s critical to better health and health outcomes.

Commonly referred to as “80 by 20,” this goal came on the heels of multiple studies revealing that acute care facilities with a higher percentage of RNs with a BSN or higher degrees had lower congestive heart failure mortality, decubitus ulcers, postoperative deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism, failure to rescue and shorter lengths of stay in hospitals.

Today, Kentucky nursing leaders and educators can celebrate the recent announcement from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) that out of 4.2 million RNs, 56% of the U.S. nursing workforce is at an all-time high of BSN preparation in 2017; up from 49% in 2010.   

This is an overall increase of 14% since 2010 and Kentucky is among nine other states with the most growth in reaching the 2020 goal.  With 10.8% growth of BSN prepared nurses in the workforce (43% in 2010 and 53% in 2017), Kentucky joins Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania for most growth ranging from 10% to 15%.

We are fiercely proud of the work our Kentucky nursing colleagues have done to advance the RN workforce through higher education.  

But we have more work to do.

In Kentucky, we have an even greater mandate: To nurture future nurses with, not only knowledge, but courage and resilience to address some of the worst health outcomes and health behaviors in the country.

The Kentucky Department of Health reports that we are home to five of the 13 counties in the country with the lowest median annual household incomes. Kentucky also has some of the highest death rates from cancer, diabetes, coronary artery disease, adverse childhood experiences, substance use disorders, smoking and obesity.

To care for today’s sicker and more complex patients, Kentucky nurses must have the ability to master synthesizing clinical care information rapidly and to apply that knowledge and skill-set precisely, while at the same time maintaining a high level of professionalism and responsibility to advance high quality patient outcomes.

Kentucky’s academic and organizational nurse leaders have made great progress to strengthen the RN workforce through higher education, but the gap is still wide. 

We must see accelerated efforts for support from key stakeholder leaders (academic, employers and legislators) to foster practice environments that embrace lifelong learning and offer incentives for registered nurses (RNs) seeking to advance their education. 

The national goal for 80% of the RN workforce to be BSN-prepared is within reach.  The time is now to protect, promote and optimize health.  Too many Kentucky lives depend on it.

Janie Heath, PhD, APRN-BC, FAAN is the President of the Kentucky Nurses Action Coalition and the Dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Kentucky

Julie Marfell, DNP, APRN-BC, FAANP is the Workforce Chair for the Kentucky Nurses Action Coalition and an Associate Professor of the College of Nursing at the University of Kentucky