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Pandemic Inspires Boom Of Applicants To Ohio Nursing And Medical Schools

Ohio State Wexner Medical Center
Ryan Hitchcock

Meris Shuwarger, a nursing student at Chamberlain University’s Columbus campus, helps lead study groups and tutors students taking what the school considers "high risk" classes.

“I have seen a lot of nursing students first-hand who are starting out in the program because of the pandemic, because they feel called to help, and I’ve really been impressed by those students, and feel if you’re willing to start nursing school in the middle of the pandemic, you’re gonna be a great nurse,” Shuwarger laughs. 

That's not why Shuwarger initially entered nursing school.

“I came into nursing school with 100% certainty that I wanted to be a labor and delivery nurse and I wanted to go on and become a midwife,” Shuwarger explains. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, inspired her to completely change course. 

“I realized that there’s a big demand for nurses to help in critical care settings and emergency settings. So I’ve actually changed my career path and career goals,” Shuwarger says. “Now I am interested in becoming an emergency room nurse, but more specifically I’m interested in becoming a nurse educator.”

The past few months have been an all-hands-on-deck battle for health care workers, and it's inspiring more people to join their ranks. Shuwarger’s students are a microcosm of a larger trend in nursing and medicine education: schools across Ohio have seen an uptick in applications since the pandemic began, according to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio.

“In 2019, we had 407 applications. And in 2020, we had 388 applications,” says Cindy Anderson, associate dean for academic affairs at Ohio State’s College of Nursing. “We’re only able to accept 166 students of those applicants.”

Students are applying in higher numbers for every undergraduate nursing program available at Ohio State. But the school isn't able to admit more than a third of those applicants, it still can't keep up with the demand. 

“We are currently in a nurse faculty shortage,” Anderson says. “We’re working very hard to educate our graduate students for roles as nurse faculty, because that is one of the major restrictions in terms of increasing class sizes.”

The next round of nursing school applications closes in January. The shortage in nursing faculty coincides with a nursing shortage in hospitals across the country.

Anderson says potential nurses understand they’re more critical than ever during the pandemic. 

“Nurses are so central to patient care,” Anderson says. “They are with the patient, they are at their bedside, communicating with families and coordinating their care. They’re at the frontline.”

Future doctors are also feeling the call to work at the frontlines. Applications for Ohio State's med school were at an all-time high of more than 8,000 in the last round. 

“Particularly the difference between last year and this year has been about 14% increase,” says Ohio State School of Medicine associate dean of admissions Dr. Demicha Rankin. 

“There are a pool of candidates that applied to medical school in prior years, and some of those students may have been discouraged or pursued other opportunities," Rankin continues, "but in light of COVID that could have A. Limited those other opportunities or B. Really confirmed their commitment to pursue medicine."

Shuwarger finishes her bachelor’s degree in nursing this April. She and her classmates will join the ranks of a health care profession still grappling with a global pandemic.

And with Ohio in the middle of its worst surge yet, Shuwarger expects to fight the effects of COVID-19 even after the vaccine becomes widespread.

“We had patients who were dying in the ICU not because of COVID, but they were there because of complications of COVID,” Shuwarger says. “They had had COVID earlier in the year and now were actively dying in the ICU even though they were no longer infected.”

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.