When Patricia Flink looks to the future of nursing, she worries. And she’s not alone.
In Massachusetts and nationwide, health care institutions of all kinds, including hospitals, nursing homes, and Flink’s field of home care, are struggling with a shortage of nurses, due partly to a surge in retirements and lagging nursing school enrollments over the past decade.
Since the nursing crunch became commonly reported in the media, colleges have reported a spike in enrollments, to be sure. But to Flink, the branch director of Gentiva Health Services in Springfield, that isn’t enough.
That’s why Gentiva, which specializes in pediatric home care, is launching an outreach program called Back to the Future of Nursing. The aim is to attract former nurses back to the profession with a free refresher course.
“This is an effort to recruit more nurses. We’re targeting RNs and LPNs who maybe have been away from nursing for awhile,” Flink said. “Maybe they took time off to raise a family. Maybe some people got out of nursing to try different things, but they would like to come back if they had a course to help them come back.”
As part of the two-week course, current nurses guide their former counterparts on a review of systems, disease processes, and medications, as well as a hands-on review of current equipment. In return for the free course, participants agree to go to work for Gentiva for at least 16 hours per week — more if they prefer.
“There is a nursing shortage, and we felt this might be one way to get more nurses to come back to work,” she said.
Easing the Crunch
Gentiva’s Springfield branch, part of a national chain, has been in existence since 1992 and now serves between 200 and 300 children at any given time. The patients have a wide range of disabilities, from congenital anomalies and respiratory ailments to cerebral palsy and mental retardation. Gentiva sends nurses, therapists, and home health aides into these families to support the parents’ own care.
“We’re not there to replace the parents; we’re there to work with them, to make having their children at home doable and not stressful,” Flink said.
However, the problem of a shrinking nurse pool, which has affected the entire spectrum of health care, is no different in home health, threatening the quality of care for children as much as it does for adults in hospitals, she added. With the average age of nurses in America inching past 40, the field has simply not been attracting young people as it once did.
The reasons for the crunch stem partly from positive trends. Women, for one, have many more career options than they did 20 or 30 years ago. And at the same time that the nursing field is struggling to attract new blood, the population is simultaneously growing and aging, thanks to better medical treatment.
The fact that many former nurses have left the profession to raise families is also understandable, Flink said. But she noted that home health care doesn’t demand a rigid work schedule and could therefore be a good choice for someone looking to make a career comeback.
“Home care gives them a good opportunity because it’s flexible,” she said. “Someone whose children might be older now but not out of the home might be looking for a flexible schedule.”
The qualifications required to work in home care are minimal, she added. A nurse must simply have six months of experience and a current license. The free refresher course, taught by nurse managers at Gentiva, is intended to simply ease the anxiety of returning to nursing. Those managers will then follow up with a period of mentoring the returning nurses.
“We want to make them comfortable, competent, and confident,” Flink said.
Meeting a Need
As in many other fields of nursing, the numbers of new nurses in home care simply aren’t keeping up with retirements, particularly in the last year or two, Flink said. The uptick in nursing enrollments reported by area colleges is a positive step, but health care services aren’t likely to see the tangible effects of that increase for a few years. Meanwhile, she said, children have care needs right now.
“We have a lot of kids in difficult situations, a lot of kids in the hospital who are looking to get home but can’t get home if they don’t have nursing there,” she said. “Or, if they do come home, there’s not enough nursing to support the patients and the parents. The parents get exhausted caring for these kids 24 hours a day if nursing isn’t available. It ends up putting children at risk for institutionalization. Home health care is a big, big need.”
The agency will match nurses not only with flexible hours but with a location that will work best, since it has clients throughout Hampden and Hampshire counties, Flink said. “We try to match the caregiver with the patient geographically.” She added that if anyone has raised children, they have the background to deliver care in this setting — and she hopes they also have the time and the ambition to return to their former careers.
“We’re just in desperate need of nurses,” she said more than once. So desperate, in fact, that she’s not waiting around for that expected increase in new nursing graduates. After all, she said, plenty of kids need care right now.