Expert Staff: Education Standards for Oncology Nurses Set the Bar High at Springfield Clinic’s Cancer Center
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Expert Staff: Education Standards for Oncology Nurses Set the Bar High at Springfield Clinic’s Cancer Center

When Tammi Kuhn began treatment at Springfield Clinic’s Cancer Center, she was understandably nervous, not knowing what to expect from her care team or treatment plan. What had started as symptoms she thought were stress-related—Tammi is the principal of Glenwood Elementary School and had sadly lost a student in a tragic accident in January—became stage four colon cancer that had metastasized to her liver by her diagnosis in April.

A diagnosis like cancer is always accompanied by uncertainty, fear and more questions than there are answers. But after their first visit to Preet Paul Singh, MD, at Springfield Clinic’s Cancer Center, Tammi and her husband, Mark, were relieved to discover they had found a team ready to care for them. “I remember on my very first day of treatment, coming in and talking to one of Dr. Singh’s nurses,” Tammi says. “I had anxiety, but she took the time to talk to me and explain things to me. And that happens every time I come in now.”

Both Tammi and Mark were immediately struck by how easy it was to get information about Tammi’s frightening diagnosis and treatment plan. “When the nurses answer my questions,” Tammi says, “they give me the technical term and then explain it to me in language I can understand. They’ll take time if I want to write things down. And then I know that after I leave, they’re only a phone call away, and they’ll match me with the person or resources that I need if they don’t know for sure.”

OCN-certified nurses at Springfield Clinic's Cancer CenterA Strong Foundation of Practical Knowledge

There’s a reason nurses at Springfield Clinic’s Cancer Center are so prepared to answer questions and give help where it’s needed: All registered nurses who work in the Oncology Department must obtain OCN (oncology certified nurse) certification through the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC). Sandy Thornton, RN, BSN, OCN, an educator within the department, says this requirement is important because it ensures top-notch care for Cancer Center patients.

“It verifies the competency of our RNs,” she says. “It just ensures that those nurses have a certain knowledge base in order to safely care for our oncology patients. And the bar is set pretty high. I mean, it’s not just basic knowledge, it’s pretty advanced knowledge.”

Nurses don’t have to come to the Cancer Center with this certification—or even this knowledge—already in hand, though. The Cancer Center team is just looking for nurses who will be motivated to work hard and learn. New nurses are given three years to become OCN certified and are supported by Springfield Clinic throughout the whole process. Before they even start studying for the actual OCN certification exam, oncology nurses must complete a cancer basics course and a chemotherapy/ biotherapy certification through the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) in addition to having previous nursing experience and oncology contact hours.

These foundation classes and the OCN certification are not a national requirement for Cancer Centers around the U.S.; in fact, according to the ONCC website, only 38,000 nurses nationwide have this certification. Springfield Clinic’s Cancer Center mandates all of this learning specifically to make sure their nurses are specially equipped to take care of their patients. “Our OCN-certified nurses are well prepared to provide exceptional care,” Infusion Manager Dee Dee Golden, RN, BSN, OCN, says. “We take pride in our professionalism, and having certified nurses is one way to continue the professional care we are committed to delivering.”

And, after the nurses become initially certified, that education continues: The biotherapy/chemotherapy course must be renewed every two years and the OCN certification must be renewed every four years. “I think it’s really important to have that continuing education, as rapidly as the field of oncology moves—the new drugs, the different treatments that are coming out,” Sandy says. “We have to keep up with what’s new and current, and continuing education is a great way to do that.”

Certified to Deliver Expert Care

Tammi’s first round of treatment effectively stopped the cancer growth, and now she’s on a less aggressive schedule. And while each treatment day can sometimes bring fresh anxiety, Tammi tends to feel better once she reaches the fourth floor of Springfield Clinic 1st—900 Building. “I can’t think gloomy thoughts about treatment day because as soon as I walk in, the greeter says hello with a smile and it’s bright with sunlight in the infusion room,” she says. “Everybody I’ve met, whether they’re infusion staff or Dr. Singh’s nurses, is so positive and that just makes a big difference when you’re facing treatment and knowing that you’re not going to feel so good afterwards.”

And it’s not just patients who find confidence in the nurses’ expert knowledge—it’s the physicians as well. “The organization and the physicians benefit from having OCN-certified nurses,” says Dr. Singh. “Because you know that you’re getting committed nurses, you know that your patients are getting well taken care of, you know when there’s an emergency or there’s a problem and you’re not there when patients are calling, the nurses are. They are the pillar of that care and the way that care is delivered.”

For Tammi and Mark Kuhn, their experience at the Cancer Center has been uniquely shaped by the expertise of the nursing staff, and that kind of confidence in Tammi’s medical care is invaluable as they navigate her disease and treatment and focus on healing. “And what I’ve been blessed the most with,” Tammi says, “is that we do have the Cancer Center here. I don’t have to travel; it’s right in my backyard. And I feel very confident in the care they can provide here.”

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