A solution to shortages: UF nursing program aids retention, recruitment

Since spring 2020, nurses across the globe have carried the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic on their tired shoulders, facing unimaginably challenging work environments that have ended with many leaving the profession.

On an Academic Partnership Unit, student nurses have the opportunity to learn how to be an effective clinician from staff RNs.

University of Florida College of Nursing clinical lecturer Michael Aull, MSN, BSN and clinical assistant professor Patrick Nobles, DNP, FNP-BC, CNL, clinical faculty members at the UF Health Jacksonville campus, have created a way to strengthen recruitment and keep high-quality nurses at their facility.

Their “Academic Partnership Unit,” or APU, helps build relationships between health care workers and hospitals — starting from the time nurses are students. UF Health Jacksonville is one of two hospitals in the nation with the program.

The pair recently reported in the Journal of Nursing Administration that nurses who participated in the APU had just a 7% turnover rate after two years — much lower than the national 24% average turnover after one year.

For the APU clinical experience, student nurses are placed on a specific unit for the entirety of their rotation. Students become familiar with the unit’s staff and are integrated into its unique culture. Unit nurses are assigned to work one-on-one with students while providing patient care, helping develop each student’s skill set. Eight such units exist at UF Health Jacksonville.

“In facilities with an APU, nurse engagement is encouraged and supported. The staff on each of the APU units take ‘ownership’ of the students assigned to their unit,” Aull said. “This allows for the staff nurse to become a primary role model and mentor for students.”

Now entering its sixth year at UF Health Jacksonville, the APU also allows nursing leaders to assess, evaluate and recruit student nurses. According to Aull and Nobles, the bond created helps students become more committed to the hospital itself and increases familiarity with the facility, allowing for an easier transition from student to staff nurse.

Students who develop a rapport with staff nurses through an APU feel like they are part of a cohesive, caring unit, making them more comfortable sticking with their organization during times of crisis. Former APU students can also become mentors after graduation, promoting a supportive working environment in a self-sustaining cycle.

“I loved being a Gator Nurse in Jacksonville,” said former APU student and current UF Health Jacksonville emergency room nurse, Annie Bacon, now a student mentor. “We get a really unique experience at this particular campus because your entire academic journey is in the hospital, which helped me feel really comfortable in a hospital setting. Everyone is so willing to help and teach each other, and I love that patient care is so team-oriented.”

Serving as a pathway for soon-to-be graduate nurses to enter the nursing profession, the APU may be a solution for high staff turnover rates. Aull and Nobles will continue to study whether the model can be replicated by other hospitals, helping address national challenges in nurse recruitment and retention.

“I am so proud of our faculty for working to address nurse retention at a time when hospital staffing challenges threaten to impact how patients receive care,” said UF College of Nursing Dean Anna McDaniel, Ph.D, R.N., FAAN, the Linda Harman Aiken Chair.