In the spring, Lafayette General Medical Center will begin one of the state’s first nurse residency programs, providing newly licensed registered nurses additional education and support as they begin their careers.

The goal is to help new nurses transition successfully to the professional world, said Becki Benoit, Lafayette General Health chief nursing officer.

“When you get in practice, especially today, there’s a huge gap because new nurses are not used to the higher acuity patients that we see,” Benoit said. “Our acuity is so high with patients presenting with multisystem failures. As new students come out, we have to figure out a way to close that gap and build a library of experience.”

The nurse residents will be assigned two nurse professionals who will provide support during their first year of nursing — a preceptor and a mentor.

Typically, a preceptor is assigned to new nurses for 12 weeks, which includes an orientation to the hospital’s policies and procedures. Now, the preceptor will provide guidance for a full year as part of the program. In addition, the nurse residents’ performance will be tracked for the year after they complete the residency.

The yearlong residency program will begin in March to allow time for new nursing graduates to take their state licensing exams, Benoit said. A second group of new nurses will be admitted to the program following spring graduation in May 2016.

As part of the paid program, the nurse residents will meet weekly in small groups with their mentor for “tales at the bedside” sessions to discuss what they learned that week, what they didn’t understand and to share moments of vulnerability or any issues they weren’t comfortable with.

At least once a month, the nurse residents will spend time in a classroom setting for specialized instruction, which could include panel discussions with doctors. At the end of the program, nurses will present a research project.

The residency program will launch at Lafayette General Medical Center and Lafayette General Southwest — the former Regional Medical Center of Acadiana, which Lafayette General Health officially takes over in November. After its residency program is accredited, it plans to expand to other hospitals in its network.

Its academic partners include the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, LSU at Eunice and South Louisiana Community College.

At least 32 states offer nurse residency programs, though so far, Lafayette General’s program is the only one recognized in Louisiana by the University Health System Consortium and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, according to the association’s website.

Earlier this year, Oschner Health System began a 12-month nurse residency program that is open to nurses who have been out of school for less than three years, said Jeffrey Hamilton, an Oschner Leadership Institute nursing consultant. Oschner Health System is finalizing an affiliation with an academic institution for its program as it plans to seek accreditation from a different accrediting body — the American Nurses Credentialing Center, Hamilton added.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing represents nursing education programs at private and public institutions across the country and also operates an accrediting agency for nursing education programs. The association notes on its website that the turnover rate among first-year nurses can be as high as 30 percent, while nurse residency programs have shown a retention rate of about 95 percent among participants.

The retention issue is also a financial one; a departing nurse can cost a hospital or medical facility as much as $88,000 per nurse, said Melinda Oberleitner, associate dean of UL-Lafayette’s College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences.

“It’s a huge cost implication if they can’t retain new graduates,” Oberleitner said. “Statistics show that the average retention at the end of the first year (of nurse residency) is about 95 percent. It’s a huge improvement and exceeds the national average. We’re excited about Lafayette General taking this on. We think it’s going to be an important step for our community and the healthcare community to keep costs down and improve quality in Acadiana facilities.”

Oberleitner also serves on the Lafayette General nurse residency program advisory board. She said she also hopes the residency program will provide the university with valuable information about any tweaks needed to its own training program.

Aside from the clinical aspects of the job, a career in nursing can be emotional and stressful, so the additional support for new nurses is particularly important in their first year on the job, Benoit said.

“We see now people are leaving nursing because it’s too hard,” Benoit said. “We hope this program gives them a comfort level and builds confidence.”

As part of their training, nursing students begin clinical experiences in the second semester of their sophomore or second year and those clinical experiences continue throughout the remainder of their education.

By the time they’re seniors, they may be caring for three or more patients at a time to help with their transition into an independent role as a nurse, Oberleitner said.

“The ultimate goal of the residency is that they are transitioned effectively and they stay within the organization and don’t leave after a year or two years, because they’ve gotten the support they need in that transition,” Oberleitner said.

In addition to improved retention, the nurse residency programs have helped hospitals improve quality and safety, Benoit said.

Another goal of the program is to provide a workforce pipeline for Lafayette General Health system’s other hospitals in the community, Benoit said.

The hospital will officially take over the Regional Medical Center of Acadiana on Ambassador Caffery Parkway in November, and took over management of University Hospital and Clinics, the former University Medical Center, in 2012. In addition, the system also either owns or manages community hospitals in St. Martin, Vermilion and Acadia parishes.

“Our intent is in the middle of this nursing shortage to fill the needs at the other hospitals in our system,” she said.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.