WCU helping meet need for registered nurse anesthetists

There is a critical need for certified registered nurse anesthetists – advanced care nurses commonly known as CRNAs and who specialize in pain relief – and Western Carolina University’s department of nursing is doing something to meet that need, with the help of several Western North Carolina medical care providers.

The university is launching a new graduate level program to educate CRNAs and has recruited Mary Karlet as interim director. Karlet has more than 24 years of experience as a nurse anesthetist and educator, most recently at Duke University. She is helping to develop curricula, create evaluation tools and establish clinical practice sites for nurses who will participate in WCU’s program.

One of Karlet’s first steps has been to talk with administrators at 13 health care organizations in WNC who have contributed a total of $250,000 toward an endowment for a new nurse anesthesia professorship. The gifts from community hospitals, major medical centers and a group in private practice, combined with state matching funds, will give WCU a $500,000 endowment to recruit and hire some of the best nurse educators in the country.

Contributors to the Western North Carolina Health Organizations Endowed Professorship in Certified Registered Nurse Anesthesia are Mission Hospitals of Asheville, Asheville Anesthesiology Associates PA, Haywood Regional Medical Center, Murphy Medical Center, WestCare Health System of Jackson and Swain counties, Blue Ridge HealthCare of Burke County, AMSOL Anesthesiology Group of Burke County, Angel Medical Center of Franklin, Spruce Pine Community Hospital, Transylvania Community Hospital, McDowell Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital in Columbus and Park Ridge Hospital in Fletcher.

“It is heartwarming to find that there is such a solid base of support to fill the critical need for CRNAs in this region. Contributions to the endowment were pivotal,” Karlet said.

The endowment focuses attention on the importance of nurses who are well-prepared and certified in the safe administration of anesthesia, said Noelle Kehrberg, dean of the College of Applied Sciences, where WCU’s department of nursing is located. “As we work to meet the health care needs of our region, we want to make sure our CRNA graduates are fully prepared for their responsibilities, and this endowment will help us do that,” Kehrberg said.

CRNAs work in every setting in which anesthesia is delivered, including hospital surgical suites and delivery rooms, critical access hospitals, and the offices of dentists, podiatrists, ophthalmologists, plastic surgeons and pain management specialists. The American Association of Nurse Anesthetists reports that CRNAs are the sole anesthesia providers in approximately two-thirds of all rural hospitals such as the ones that serve much of WNC.

Karlet already is taking nurses’ applications for WCU’s first CRNA class, which could begin as early as January 2007. She says it is important to recruit nurses who are prepared to make a huge commitment of time and energy. They will face a rigorous, 28-month program which will provide them with both the technical skills and a profound knowledge of pharmacology and physiology that CRNAs need.

In addition, they must have a deep appreciation for what it takes to interact with surgeons, other nurses and technicians. “CRNAs have a high degree of responsibility for patients’ well being. They must work be able to work as a team with other professionals,” Karlet said.

Once Western’s new CRNA education program is established and fully accredited, it will be one of fewer than 100 such programs in the nation. For more information or to apply to the CRNA program, contact the department of nursing at (828) 670-8810.