Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi received final approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on Thursday to offer a new Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree (DNP) for registered nurses who have earned graduate degrees and are interested in expanding their skills as family nurse practitioners or nurse leaders.

The new online degree is the first of its kind south of San Antonio, and is the highest advanced degree available for nursing practice. University officials expect doctoral graduates to help alleviate the gap in healthcare professionals in rural areas.

The two-year program will begin in fall of 2016 with a group of 13 students who are credentialed as family nurse practitioners.

“Qualified medical professionals are desperately needed in under-served and rural areas of Texas,” said Dr. Flavius Killebrew, President and CEO of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “We are proud to help fill this need by providing advanced education for nurses to care for those in these areas.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that by the year 2025 the United States will face a shortage of between 46,000 and 90,000 physicians. South Texas counties also report a shortage of primary care clinicians, and are often categorized as medically underserved, said Dr. Mary Jane Hamilton, Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

“We are extremely excited about the addition of the new doctoral program,” Hamilton said. “We have worked to gain approval for this innovative doctoral degree for almost five years because we believe our graduates will change the health of South Texas communities. Qualified DNP nurse practitioners could help ease the shortage of healthcare providers and serve as primary care providers in rural areas that may not have doctors.”

That is especially critical as South Texas faces higher rates of several preventable diseases like diabetes and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, listeriosis, and dengue fever.

“The professional nurse most likely to enroll in this program is the individual striving to be an expert in practice and a leader in the community workforce, currently employed full-time, and interested in completing a degree through distance learning technology,” said Dr. Eve Layman, Associate Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences. “These nurses work and live in counties south and west of San Antonio. Many are graduates of our other nursing programs and trust they will receive a quality education at a reasonable price.”

The online format makes doctoral education available to nurses unable to attend full-time, campus-bound, or blended programs. Students in the new program will complete 40 credit hours online, including 1,000 hours of clinical work in partnerships with diverse healthcare agencies throughout South Texas.

The program will initially offer a family nurse practitioner specialty and later add a healthcare executive specialty.

Layman said this type of education will add a select group of nurses to the professional healthcare workforce who can assist in reducing the number of complex health problems common to the population in this region. It will also help to address a need for new methods for preventing disease and managing chronic illnesses.

“Coursework contained in the program will provide opportunities for RNs with advanced education to expand their skills in the design and implementation of medically necessary and clinically appropriate care for unique patient situations,” said Layman. “The bottom line is that appropriate care is effective care. Patients with complex needs will receive the services they need rapidly.”