Is healthcare ready to embrace more young nurses?

In conversations about the nursing shortage, healthcare leaders often underscore the importance of building a pipeline by stirring interest among younger generations, and getting in front of high schoolers and middle schoolers. But is the industry fully ready to embrace more young nurses?

Over the summer, a 16-year-old Arizona State University graduate made headlines when she earned her BSN. Elliana Tenenbaum is thought to be the youngest nurse in America, having earned her high school diploma in just a year-and-a-half and doubling up on college courses. She completed an accelerated 16-month BSN program at ASU's Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. Ms. Tenenbaum graduated in August and soon plans to start a DNP program. 

Generally speaking, anyone under the age of 18 would not be able to secure full-time employment as a hospital nurse, but in the coming years, healthcare organizations could see a rise in the number of nurse applicants who've earned their degrees in their late teens or early 20s, particularly as they ramp up efforts to market the profession to especially young populations. 

While Ms. Tenenbaum's story may be the exception rather than the rule, it sparked attention among those in the nursing industry on social media. Reactions were mixed, with some noting this as a positive example of the possibilities when the industry invests more in the next generation, while others shared concerns about whether people in their late teens to early 20s would be ready to grapple with the emotional toll that comes with working in patient care, and on hospitals' ability to fully support younger nurses. 

"I see the concerns and I see the interesting debate out there, and I can appreciate all sides," Jennifer Mensik Kennedy, PhD, RN, president of the American Nurses Association, told Becker's. "What this demonstrates is, how do we support individuals going into nursing?"

If hospitals and health systems are turning more to middle schools and high schools to attract young peoples' interest in the profession, it's fair to assume ambitious individuals might act on that interest early, and want to participate in career pathways connecting them to college programs while they may still be finishing up high school. 

"It's also about the holistic admission process," Dr. Mensik Kennedy said. "This is important because not every 16-year-old is a 16-year-old, and not every 25-year-old is a 25-year-old, so it's up to schools of nursing through their admission process to look at the whole of the candidate who is applying and understand those unique circumstances for each person, and admit people based on that." 

As far as Ms. Tenebaum's case, "It's important to point out that she completed a rigorous program and graduated, so she's demonstrated the competencies that she needs to, to be a registered nurse," she said. 

The nursing industry tends to have a "get more experience first" mindset that can in some cases be self-limiting for new nurse graduates who want to go directly into pursuing an advanced practice degree or complete a PhD program.

"I can't think of any other profession that does that," Dr. Mensik Kennedy said. "As a nursing profession, we really do need to support each other and to support the individual. If someone wants to go through and become a nurse practitioner sooner or nurse researcher sooner, that's great … it's really important for us to put age aside." 

When it comes to hospital nurse residency and training programs, the ANA leader said they should all focus on supporting a new nurse's transition from novice to expert, regardless of a person's age. 

"I know nurses who've graduated in their 60s — these are individuals who might have decided to stay home and raise their families and now they're entering the workforce. There is a place for everyone at the table," Dr. Mensik Kennedy said. "Just because we graduate someone who is 21 or 25 doesn't mean they're going to contribute any more or any less than maybe someone who is 16 or someone who is 60."

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