Washington County nursing students enabled by distance-learning technology

Posted Feb. 12, 2011, at 2:14 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — A $1.2 million federal broadband grant, obtained by a cutting-edge Machias business, is allowing nursing students in Washington County access to continuing education without traveling to Bangor or beyond.

The closest nursing schools to Washington County are Husson University in Bangor or the University of Maine in Orono, and to LPNs or students already living and established Down East, this travel distance has often meant losing out on upgrading their education.

At the same time, it is estimated that by 2020, the country will need 75 percent more nurses than today due to an aging population of both nurses and patients, Shannon Packard of the faculty of Central Maine’s Medical Center’s College of Nursing and Health Professions said Friday. In Washington County, she said, it is often hard to recruit registered nurses, particularly in specialties such as obstetrics.

But a unique partnership among Axiom Technologies of Machias, CMMC and the University of Maine at Machias is allowing Washington County health care students access to classes and instruction to upgrade their education. The Bridges Program began in January with a single student and will expand over the next three years, adding eight students each September. Thirty applications have been received for the first eight slots.

Packard said UMM is in the process of creating a new course of health care study to assist students who do not make it into the Bridges Program.

Vicky McDowell of Eastport is the program’s first participant. She said she was a licensed practical nurse on her way to becoming a registered nurse when her son fell ill many years ago.

“I just never finished,” she said. When the DECH program came along, McDowell said she jumped at the opportunity.

“I was so excited to find a program that fit where I was,” she said.

McDowell said that at first, she felt like she was watching a movie when using the telecommunication program.

“I didn’t know I was part of that movie,” she said. She soon began interacting with the classroom and instructor on the system. “Now, I don’t feel that distance at all.”

In addition, Bridges has a full-time faculty member on staff at DECH. “What better student-teacher ratio could you have than one-on-one?” McDowell asked.

Axiom obtained the Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program grant to address a health care worker shortage in Washington County. The grant also aids farmers and fishermen. Just under $700,000 of the three-year grant has been earmarked for the DECH program. The hospital’s only financial obligation is to provide a classroom.

“This grant is so much more than just a nursing program,” Packard said. “It empowers all of Washington County to become educated, to step out and achieve something better for themselves and their families.”

Susan Corbett, president of Axiom, said the program provides a staff member at DECH and $330,000 worth of communication equipment to link CMMC and DECH, that will belong to the hospital. “This program puts DECH in the position of leadership here,” Corbett said. “They are at the head of the pack.”

Packard said that when students are on the floor of a hospital such as DECH, everyone performs at a higher level. “The standards and expectations on every level are raised,” she said.

“DECH is very well positioned now that it is participating in this grant,” Corbett said. “It will now be so much easier for the hospital to move forward into other areas.”

Some of these areas include telehealth systems that allow face-to-face meetings between doctors and patients in rural areas using a $20 webcam from an office supply store.

“We will eventually be able to use these programs for specialty physicians to see patients,” said Karen Labonte, DECH chief nursing officer. “This technology is good enough for doctors to see patients’ pupils.”

Packard said that beyond nursing certifications and degrees, the system can be used for educating radiologists, nuclear medicine specialists and others, as well as for obtaining a master’s degree in nursing.

“CMMC is one of only a few hospital-affiliated nursing schools left in the U.S.,” she said. “This allows Down East to have access to one of the largest medical centers in the state.”

Corbett said the telecommunications system is a point to multi-point system that networks CMMC with five off-site hospitals in Machias, Rumford, Farmington, Norway and Bridgton.

“This opens up our whole system,” said Corbett. “It means that this county is now on a level playing field with everyone else.”

She said this cutting-edge technology is shrinking the state and allowing people to feel like they are in the room with each other, despite great distances.

“We are only limited by our imagination,” she said. “We have just raised the bar.”


Vicky McDowell of Eastport is the first student in the Down East Community Hospital’s Bridges Program. The program, which uses technology to link remote hospitals with nursing teaching centers, will enable McDowell to take classes that will allow her to progress from licensed practical nurse to registered nurse.

Technology allows Washington County nursing students to access continuing education