Singing River Opens Mississippi’s First Medical Learning Center


OCEAN SPRINGS — Amber Granger, 38, took her first healthcare job more than two decades ago as a nursing assistant.

She went back to school to become a lab technician, then moved into management. She dreamed of becoming a nurse, but she couldn’t give up her earnings — or go into more debt — for nursing school.

Her career aspirations remained on hold until Singing River Healthcare Academy gave her the boost she needed. The new academy is the state’s first-ever medical apprenticeship program.

The academy is part of the response of the Singing River Health System — and state and local leaders — to the major staffing shortages plaguing the state’s health system.

“If I can advance my career, keep working and support my family, why not apply?” said Granger, a resident of Gulfport. “I got the call that I was accepted and it was surreal until my first day of school.”

Amber Granger, left, poses with nurse educator Lauren Maut during the groundbreaking ceremony for Singing River Healthcare Academy on Nov. 10, 2022. (Photo: Sara DiNatale)

Now Granger is well on her way to becoming a licensed practical nurse. She is part of a cohort of 15 in the fledgling academy, which will not have a dedicated base until a new complex is built. The program allows students to train for a host of essential healthcare jobs for free and while being paid for on-the-job training.

On Thursday, Governor Tate Reeves met with hospital leaders to dedicate the academy’s planned four-story building. The new training facility will be a short drive from the Ocean Springs Hospital Singing River campus on Bienville Boulevard.

“This transformation program is going to have a huge impact on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Reeves said during Thursday’s celebration. “And, quite frankly, this is going to have a huge impact on the entire state of Mississippi.”

Singing River CEO Tiffany Murdock said the program expects to have 1,000 students by fall 2024. She expects to more than quadruple that annual number once the academy building opens to students.

Reeves said the academy aligns with the state’s overall approach to strengthening the economy through workforce development by ensuring Mississippians have access to training for the most in-demand positions and the highest paid in the state.

“This academy will strengthen the pipeline of healthcare professionals in Mississippi,” he said, “and help inspire people to live, learn and work here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Lauren Fernandez, a 33-year-old Ocean Springs resident, is one of the program’s recent graduates. The former army doctor is now a surgical technologist. She helps surgeons from start to finish of a procedure.

“I had been out of health care for a while,” Fernandez said, “and debated going back to surgical tech school. But then I saw the apprenticeship program and I I said, “It’s supposed to be.”

In addition to nursing assistants and surgical technologists, the program also trains nursing assistants, physician assistants, and phlebotomists.

Hospitals have faced staffing shortages since before the pandemic, but the problems peaked as the worst of COVID-19 dragged on. Nurses left the field altogether, took less stressful nursing jobs outside of a hospital, or became contract travel nurses for higher pay.

Mississippi hospitals reported about 3,000 total nursing vacancies at the end of 2021, according to a Mississippi Hospital Association survey.

“I can’t be 2,500 people,” Granger said, referring to the state’s massive nursing shortages, “but I can fill the void of one person.”

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