Paving the Way for the Future

BayCare Polk Teaming Up With Local Colleges to Provide Immersive Experience


Aspiring nurses must be dedicated to their education before they enter the field professionally, but classroom instruction alone will not prepare them for the daily duties of nursing. That’s why BayCare Health System’s Polk Region is now partnering with several local colleges to provide intensive hands-on training to nursing students.

Kristen Smith, BayCare Polk’s Chief Nursing Officer, understands the urgency of not only attracting more people into nursing but also making sure student nurses get the skills and experiences they’ll need to be effective professionals upon graduating.


Smith explains why BayCare is proactively working to immerse student nurses in a professional setting before they’ve graduated.

“The country is experiencing a nursing shortage,” she says. “BayCare Polk is no exception, and the pandemic amplified and accelerated the shortage. It’s been common knowledge for some time that a nursing shortage was on the horizon, projected to incrementally trend upward as the Baby Boomers began to retire. What was not anticipated, however, was a worldwide pandemic, nor its extreme impact.”

While hospitals may be scrambling to fill their ranks, they still need to staff their units with highly trained and qualified professionals. Providing opportunities for student nurses to gain firsthand experience serves a dual purpose of ensuring that candidates for employment are sufficiently trained, plus it creates a pipeline for students to easily transition from training to working once they’ve graduated.

BayCare Polk partners with multiple academic programs, such as Florida Southern College, Polk State College, Southeastern University, Keiser University, and Traviss Technical College, and many of those students obtain hands-on training at the hospitals.

Nursing students are able to log plenty of clinical hours that count toward their future careers thanks to the collaborative efforts of local schools and hospitals. In 2022, 974 nursing students gained a total of 42,472 hours of clinical experience in BayCare’s Polk hospitals, which include Bartow Regional Medical Center, Winter Haven Hospital, and Winter Haven Women’s Hospital. 

Florida Southern College Adjunct Nursing Professor Corie Cross, MSN, RN, serves as preceptor for two groups of nursing students at Bartow Regional Medical Center. 

“These students have already shown a passion for the nursing profession,” says Cross, “and this is how they get that hands-on experience to understand what they’re getting into.” 

To increase the allure of becoming a nurse in Florida, state legislators passed Senate Bill 2524 last year establishing the Linking Industry to Nursing Education (LINE) Fund. This program provides grant money to incentivize collaboration between nursing education programs and healthcare providers. The LINE Funding Grant will match funds contributed by companies in the healthcare industry to advance educational opportunities for Florida nursing students.

While the three BayCare hospitals in the Polk Region have appreciated long-term, collegial relationships with local academic programs, the LINE Fund Program has provided additional momentum and sparked several new initiatives. 

For example, Polk State College and Winter Haven Hospital have launched a new Faculty Externship Program that allows the nursing school’s faculty members to experience immersion in Winter Haven Hospital during summer months in order to gain firsthand knowledge of the current healthcare environment. The experience, funded by the Winter Haven Hospital Foundation, can range from shadowing mentor nurses to practicing actual nursing skills. This will help school faculty members ensure that coursework is evidence-based and relevant to the practical experiences graduating nurses can expect to face upon entering the field in Central Florida.

Bartow Regional Medical Center and Winter Haven Hospital have provided funds that will be matched by LINE grant dollars to support the purchase of equipment for the Center for Human Simulation at Polk State College as well.

Also, Florida Southern College and Winter Haven Hospital will award up to six students (each) a $30,000 scholarship under the FSC Fellows Program to fund their senior year of nursing school. These scholarships are funded in equal parts by the Winter Haven Hospital and the FLDOE’s LINE fund. Recipients of the scholarships are employed by Winter Haven Hospital as nurse apprentices, a role that was created specifically for nursing students that involves flexible scheduling to accommodate classroom and study time. Upon graduation and licensure, the Fellows will start their nursing careers as a clinical nurse resident at Winter Haven Hospital.

Smith sums up what educational experiences students can expect to receive through these partnerships between hospitals and schools.

“Students’ clinical experiences range from ‘shadowing’ (observing) hospital staff to performing patient care and nursing skills (such as taking vitals, assisting with activities of daily living, administering medications, inserting a urinary catheter or nasogastric tube, removing stitches or staples, etc), under the guidance of program instructors and/or hospital nurses,” Smith explains. “All students are encouraged to practice and build effective communication skills during their many patient interactions.”

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