October 2009 cover SCAN - St. Catherine University St. Catherine University
June 2009
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The Henrietta Schmoll School of Health is using its record-breaking gift to shed new light on healthcare education.


How can the United States resuscitate healthcare? That’s the trillion-dollar question that has citizens angry and fearful, and lawmakers tied up in knots. Although no college or university can solve the problems alone, St. Catherine is uniquely poised to influence the direction of healthcare.

Students in a nursing lab

The baccalaureate nursing program swirls with activity in the renovated nursing labs in the lower level of Whitby Hall. PHOTO BY BILL KELLEY

Last December, St. Catherine’s Henrietta Schmoll School of Health received an anonymous grant of at least $1 million annually, in perpetuity. The gift came with a requirement that the funds be used to help transform healthcare education, lighting new pathways for a system that is struggling to treat patients amid skyrocketing costs and staff shortages.

St. Catherine enjoys recognition as a regional healthcare leader that is “bold, even audacious when it comes to doing the right things to create opportunity in the classroom,” says Toné Blechert, associate dean of health professions and two-year programs.

That tradition of selfless leadership extends from the late 1800s, when the institution’s founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, responded to Minnesota’s cholera epidemic by stepping in to care for the ill before healthcare systems were in place to respond. The Sisters went on to build hospitals and schools to educate healthcare workers, living up to their now familiar mission of “service to the dear neighbor."


Halfway through year one of the Perpetual Legacy Grant, St. Catherine already is making bold moves against three major obstacles to delivering accessible, affordable, high-quality healthcare:

  1. Cost pressures. The United States spends more than 15 percent of its gross domestic product on healthcare; other high-income countries spend 8 to 10 percent of their GDPs. This high cost is driven by factors that include illness care, technology and growth in pharmaceutical expenditures.
  2. An aging population. Baby boomers, who represent one-third of Minnesota’s population, will become major consumers of healthcare over the next 10 years. And older people are living longer these days, thanks to technological advances.
  3. A healthcare work-force crisis. Healthcare is the largest industry in the country, providing 14 million jobs in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Educators are struggling to produce enough graduates to keep up with the demand, as well as to meet specific criteria for working with technology and with aging and more diverse populations.

Putting patient needs front and center is an essential priority at the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health, in keeping with St. Catherine’s Catholic mission of protecting human dignity.

Today, that is easier said than done. Several practitioners may be involved in treating one patient, straining the abilities of providers to track care.

Technologies that have proven successful in treatments can distract the most well-meaning provider from delivering the essential human element in patient care. St. Kate’s students are being trained to meet that challenge by becoming proficient with technology so they can focus on the patient once they’re out working in their professions.

St. Kate’s will continue to be the place where healthcare professionals and community members gather to discuss critical issues.

St. Catherine also is building a team-centered curriculum that encourages communication among multiple professions. “The grant allows us to make the investments necessary to prepare practitioners to lead and respond to changes in the dynamic healthcare environment,” says Alice Swan, associate dean of nursing and interim dean of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health.


Leveraging resources and developing partnerships are key ways to fix a broken healthcare system, she contends.

Multiple collaborations already are underway with HealthPartners, Fairview, HealthEast and Medica to prepare future healthcare professionals. Engaging in dialogue and partnerships with major healthcare providers “creates the best options for our future workforce,” Swan says.

Allina has selected St. Catherine to be included in its new online scheduling tool to more efficiently place nursing, laboratory and rehabilitation students in practicum experiences where they can develop their skills — and where Allina can evaluate future job candidates.

Increasingly, patients have multiple conditions and concerns. A patient with heart disease may also have diabetes. An accident victim who needs reconstructive surgery may be on a ventilator. Care teams can include physicians, nurses, respiratory care therapists, radiographers, physical therapists and occupational therapists, to name a few.

Cheryl Olson, director of clinical resources and community partnerships at St. Catherine, says teaching students to deliver care in teams is an area in which the University excels. “Students are not just educated in silos here,” says Olson, who has served as a chief nurse officer and vice president of patient care at area hospitals. The legacy grant funded her position.

Whitby Hall has been retrofitted with areas that resemble community-based and hospital settings, inviting students to “think like a nurse,” Swan says, and care for role-playing “patients.” Students simulate treatments, moving at their own pace from simple to complex patient cases under the guidance of nursing faculty.


As a result of the grant, nursing students also will have more opportunities to develop their leadership skills. Through a partnership with Catholic Health Initiatives, St. Catherine has laid the groundwork for educating nurses to serve in Catholic hospitals in an impoverished area in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, United HealthGroup has teamed with St. Catherine to expose nursing students to leadership roles outside of patient care, with the goal of stemming staff shortages on the administrative and business side of healthcare.

Interim Dean Alice Swan

Alice Swan, associate dean of nursing and interim dean of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health, in one of the Whitby Hall rooms converted to classroom use with funds received through the recent legacy grant. PHOTO BY ANDY FERRON.

The high cost and inaccessibility of primary care providers is another challenge that St. Kate’s is trying to meet. In addition to nursing staff, alternative primary care practitioners include nurse practitioners and physician assistants — and all are in short supply. Since fall 2007, the number of students enrolled in the four-tiered St. Kate’s nursing program — associate, baccalaureate, master’s degree and clinical doctorate — has increased by 74 people, to 730. And St. Catherine has committed to enrolling 170 more nursing students in the next five years.

This fall, St. Catherine began planning a new physician assistant (PA) master’s degree program, with a goal of enrolling 90 students on the Minneapolis campus by fall 2012. PAs are educated to take medical histories, conduct physical examinations, and diagnose and treat medical problems under the supervision of physicians.

And St. Catherine is launching two programs to address public health concerns: an entry-level certificate program for prospective community health workers and a baccalaureate-level public health nursing program. The latter is an interdisciplinary degree program designed to educate students to improve the health of the community as a whole — to stem the tide of potential threats such as flu, for example, and to engage in proactive, protective health measures.

Specialized needs are being addressed as well. Next fall, St. Catherine will introduce a baccalaureate level “memorist” certificate program to teach students to communicate the life stories of patients or residents of elderly housing.

Online education also is an important trend. The University will be among the first to offer a post-baccalaureate nursing degree online with a leading Catholic healthcare partner, yet to be announced. Online learning tools for current St. Catherine healthcare programs also are expected to expand by 30 percent in the next three years.


St. Kate’s will continue to be the place where healthcare professionals and community members gather to discuss critical issues.

A six-part series that examines access to healthcare, dubbed “Hazardous to Your Health,” is being hosted by St. Catherine University. The series has focused on issues such as racial disparities in healthcare and business’ role in healthcare benefits; it is co-sponsored by Physicians for a National Health Program, a membership organization of more than 16,000 physicians that supports a single-payer national health insurance program.

St. Kate’s hosted a national healthcare summit in November 2008 for Catholic healthcare leaders and Catholic educators, and this past October the University sponsored a public “town-hall forum” to address the future of healthcare

in the United States. Whether reaching out to communities and organizations, or reaching in to improve educational offerings on campus, St. Catherine is using the legacy grant for initiatives in keeping with its reputation as a “bold and audacious” healthcare leader. Graduates of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health will carry the torch of transformation lit by this forward-looking gift.

ELIZABETH CHILD is a communications consultant in Northfield, Minnesota.


Attracting Nurses to Senior Care

One of the major projects funded by the Perpetual Legacy Grant for the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health aims to increase the numbers of nurses prepared to care for seniors.

A partnership was launched in spring 2007 between the School of Health and Catholic Senior Services, which has several long-term healthcare facilities in Minnesota. The project’s goal is to dispel stereotypes about elder care by giving associate-degree nursing students clinical experience at elder care facilities, and teaching them in small groups with clinical and academic faculty.

“It’s a new model in terms of working with healthcare providers,” says Alice Swan, associate dean of nursing. First-year students learn through direct observation and interaction with older adults for six hours a week. Clinical mentors partner with faculty members to teach at the facilities.

The 20 prospective nurses who enrolled last year reported that the program prepared them to assess older patients and offer care.

"They’re telling me they think all nurses would benefit from the experience,” says Professor of Nursing VaLinda Pearson, who coordinates the program. Thirty students are enrolled this year. Legacy grant funds will ensure that more St. Kate’s students have the opportunity to work at additional Catholic Senior Services Centers.

— Elizabeth Child