(BPT) - Laura Gilmore earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree in 2012, more than five years after she got her first job as a nurse. Today, as the Magnet Coordinator for Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois, Gilmore reflects on the decision to pursue her BSN.

“I didn’t need a bachelor’s degree to be hired as a registered nurse (RN) when I started working in 2007,” Gilmore says. “Today, the industry is changing, and many hospitals now require nurses to hold a bachelor’s degree. I knew I needed to go back to school to stay competitive and to improve the quality of care I provide to my patients.”

Healthcare leaders agree that nurses with a BSN degree or higher possess a broader knowledge base of patient care, quality standards, business acumen and other skills that result in improved patient outcomes.

A recent study from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) indicates that increasing the percentage of nurses with bachelor’s degrees in a hospital can significantly lower readmission rates and shorten lengths of stay. That is why nearly half of hospitals and other healthcare settings have begun to require incoming nurses to have a BSN, according to the study.

In 2013, when Gilmore’s hospital earned magnet status, a prestigious designation by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), it agreed to a magnet requirement that 80 percent of its RNs hold a BSN by 2020. According to the ANCC, healthcare organizations achieving Magnet status provide higher-quality patient care, foster innovations in the nursing practice and contribute to a more collaborative work culture.

Gilmore’s path to earn her BSN is not uncommon, but her motivation to provide her patients with high quality care is extraordinary. Gilmore decided she wanted to be a nurse during high school after her brother underwent an extensive hospital stay for a brain tumor.

“I had the opportunity to witness the extraordinary care my brother’s nurses provided during his hospitalization,” Gilmore says. “Their compassion and professionalism inspired me to attend nursing school in the first place.”

After securing her certified nursing assistant credential, Gilmore chose to study for her RN license at a local technical school so she could help her mother care for her brother. He has since made a full recovery.

When Gilmore started working at the CTCA in 2008, the facility was already on track to earn magnet status. She quickly set her sights on going back to school, so she could become part of CTCA’s 80 percent. Gilmore enrolled in Chamberlain College of Nursing’s RN to BSN online degree completion option in 2010.

“Chamberlain’s program is 100 percent online with eight-week class sessions, which allowed me to continue working full-time and take classes when my schedule permitted,” Gilmore adds. “Plus, I was able to interact with my instructors as often as needed.”

Gilmore credits Chamberlain’s RN to BSN option with helping her advance her nursing education and develop the leadership, communication and critical thinking skills necessary to move ahead in her profession.

BSN-educated nurses are in demand. A 2013 national survey from the AACN found that 59 percent of new BSN graduates had job offers at the time of graduation. More than 43 percent of hospitals and other healthcare settings now require incoming nurses to have a bachelor's degree in nursing, and 78.6 percent say they prefer BSN graduates.

This heightened focus on baccalaureate education puts a spotlight on nursing programs that offer continuing education or degree-completion opportunities for the many RNs who aspire to advance their careers. Nearly 700 RN to BSN programs are available nationwide, including more than 400 offered at least partially online, according to the AACN. While their lengths vary, programs such as Chamberlain’s allow RNs to earn their BSN in as few as three semesters with year round, full time enrollment.

Gilmore says earning her BSN has made her more confident as a practitioner, and enhanced her credibility as a healthcare professional. She recently implemented a clinical update at her hospital that has improved care for a large number of patients.

“Having a BSN has helped me in my career path, and it’s improved my ability to provide excellent care to our patients,” Gilmore says. “I’m excited to see what the nursing profession will look like a decade from today.”