Mercy Fort Smith Creates Dedicated Education Unit for Student Nurses

February 12, 2024

Mercy Fort Smith has created a dedicated education unit (DEU) that provides real patient care opportunities for nursing students as they work side-by-side with experienced nurses.

The DEU is inside Mercy Hospital Fort Smith and provides nursing students with a space to work with staff nurses and take part in everyday patient care. Mercy Fort Smith is piloting the program this spring with nursing programs at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Arkansas Tech University in Ozark and Carl Albert State College in Poteau, Oklahoma, with plans to enroll additional students in the fall. The new DEU is an 18-bed unit featuring a 4:1 patient-to-nurse ratio during day shifts. 

Mercy doctor's coat Nursing students from Carl Albert State College joined Mercy's dedicated education unit on Feb. 7.

“We believe hands-on opportunities are a key part of education for nurses,” said Stephanie Whitaker, chief nursing officer at Mercy Fort Smith. “Our nurses are excited to be part of a program that will help improve health care for our community. And our collaboration with each school will help ensure we are meeting the needs of the students and the academic programs.”

Each Mercy nurse who is part of the DEU program will act as a preceptor – essentially a nurse supervisor – to two senior level nursing students. Initially, Mercy will provide clinical opportunities on the unit Monday through Friday, eight hours per day, while seeking opportunities to expand the program to evenings and weekends if needed to meet additional interest and demand. 

Stephanie Boese, director of the medical/surgical unit Mercy Fort Smith, said having both Mercy nurses and student nurses provides additional support for patients who are care for in the DEU.

“I believe this provides an excellent experience for our nursing students,” Boese said. “The design of this unit will also increase the capacity for local nursing programs, as well as help us meet the growing needs of health care in the communities we serve.”

Whitaker pointed to the ongoing expansion of the emergency room and intensive care unit at Mercy Fort Smith, an almost $200 million investment for improved health care in the River Valley, as a project that will create a need for additional Mercy nurses and other clinical co-workers.

“It’s a real win-win situation for both the students and the communities they serve,” Whitaker said. “We’re helping to educate nursing students who will fill critical roles when they graduate. The nursing shortage is real and being felt across the country; we hope that by providing better education opportunities, we’re doing our part to fill those patient care gaps.”

Mercy doctor's coat Students from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith are taking part in Mercy's DEU program.

The DEU has been developed locally in collaboration with front line staff, hospital educators, school nursing educators and hospital administration over the past several months. In September, a group of nurses and leaders at Mercy spent a weekend participating in Johnson & Johnson’s “NurseHack4Health” event, a brainstorming session that allowed Mercy nurses to develop the framework for the DEU. Whitaker said the group performed an extensive review of the nursing literature to identify the best models for increasing nursing student confidence, clinical skill and knowledge to help them successfully pass their nursing boards.

Brittney Stout, inpatient resource nurse at Mercy Fort Smith, is looking forward to seeing the benefits of the new program for students and patients. She is training to become an adjunct clinical instructor for the spring semester.

“We are hoping this program will help prepare nursing students for their careers and give them a real experience in patient care, helping them learn how to take care of a patient from admission to discharge,” she said. “In return, our goal is to provide more one-on-one patient interaction with staff and students. We want to focus on our patients’ total experience to provide them with the best care we can possibly give. In the end, this program should be a win-win for our patients and students.”

Dr. Paula D. Julian, associate dean and executive director of nursing at UAFS’s Carolyn McKelvey Moore School of Nursing, said students appreciate the personalized guidance and support from experienced clinical educators.

“A dedicated education unit offers nursing students a rich and supportive clinical learning experience, contributing to their overall development as competent and confident practice-ready health care professionals,” she said. “Students who participate in DEUs can apply theoretical knowledge to real-life clinical experiences, enhancing their clinical skills and critical thinking.”

mercy-fs-deu-atu Arkansas Tech University - Ozark nursing students are getting hands-on experience through Mercy's dedicated education unit.

Dr. Julian added that working closely under the guidance and support of dedicated clinical faculty, nursing students in this type of program learn to apply theoretical classroom concepts to actual patient care, which reinforces their understanding.

Whitaker pointed to research that shows students who participate in the DEU model had a better engagement in their roles, a more positive clinical experience and a better retention rate than those in a traditional nursing school model.

The opportunity to actively engage in patient care activities in a dedicated learning environment is something that has piqued nursing students’ interest, Dr. Julian said. Students appreciate the program’s personalized guidance and support from experienced clinical educators.

“It interests the students to know this program is designed specifically for their benefit and development, to allow them the ability to gain practical, hands-on experience in a real clinical setting,” Dr. Julian said.

In addition to the enhanced clinical experience for students, Dr. Julian has several aspirations as the DEU pilot launches this semester, including increased student retention and a stronger ongoing collaboration between the University of Arkansas’ school of nursing in Fort Smith and Mercy.  

“Overall, I am excited for our nursing students to take part in the DEU, which offers them a meaningful and supportive clinical experience environment designed to increase their confidence and to prepare them for a successful nursing career,” she said. “The nursing faculty at UAFS are grateful for the partnership with Mercy Fort Smith. This is an exceptional opportunity for our nursing students to engage in learning and skills development designed to make them competent and confident health care professionals.”