A decade ago, Atlanti-Care worked hard to earn certification as a Magnet nursing organization, a national standard of excellence achieved by only 7 percent of hospitals.

Turns out that was just the beginning. Since then, the medical center has needed to set and meet higher nursing standards to maintain the certification, which last month was renewed again.

"The first time around was a big learning curve for all of us," said Robyn Begley, chief nursing officer at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center. "The challenge with the Magnet program is that every four years there's a new manual with new standards, and the bar keeps getting raised."

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An example of the resulting nursing-led innovation at AtlantiCare is a smartphone app - the WOW ME 2000mg, available in the iTunes stores - that helps people identify and manage the symptoms of heart disease.

The Magnet program was born of the nursing shortages of the 1970s and '80s, when the American Academy of Nursing noticed that some hospitals had no trouble attracting and retaining nurses.

A 1983 study of such hospitals found they had 14 "forces of magnetism," definable qualities of nursing leadership, management style, professional development, care models and such.

In 1990, the American Nurses Credentialing Center made these forces of magnetism the heart of the highest honor for nursing organizations, the Magnet Recognition Program.

US News & World Report considers Magnet certification in determining its annual best hospitals ratings, and the Leapfrog Hospital Survey credits for it as well.

Studies have shown the benefits of Magnet hospitals. For example, a 2012 study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institutes of Health found very-low-birth-weight babies have significantly better outcomes when born in Magnet-recognized hospitals.

Begley, of Folsom, said the certification process begins with submission of "a several years track record" of the hospital's standards and performance to the credentialing center, a unit of the American Nurses Association.

If that record scores highly enough, the program sends appraisers "who come and verify, clarify and amplify - the Magnet program's words - that what we wrote is what they find," she said.

One big focus of the program is professional development, a push for nurses to have four-year or better college degrees, said Begley, who has a doctorate in nursing practice.

"They look at the percentages of nurses with bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees," she said, "and now we have to demonstrate improvement in those categories."

AtlantiCare's Atlantic City and Mainland medical centers were the first in the region to achieve Magnet designation, in 2004. The Inspira medical centers in Vineland, Bridgeton and Elmer followed in 2008.

The Magnet program "recognizes the work environment we create that encourages our nurses to grow professionally and personally," David Tilton, president and CEO of AtlantiCare, said in a statement.

"The most important thing about Magnet is that it's a visible sign to the community, patients and families that we have great nurses and aspire to be better all the time," Begley said.

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