This Is A Problem We Can’t Take Our Eyes Off’ Hospitals, Schools Report Some Progress In Fight To Ease Nursing Shortage


Sharon Smith says that’s what area colleges and health care providers have made in their efforts to ease an ongoing nursing shortage.

Smith, the vice president of Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer at Baystate Health System, said some progress has been made in ongoing attempts to draw attention to the nursing crunch, which threatens to be a long-time concern, and also to attract more people into the field and take steps to retain those already in the profession.

But Smith and others who live with the problem every day say those in health care and education must be vigilant and continually look for new ways to ensure that there will be a good supply of nurses for years to come.

“This is not a problem we can ever take our eye off,” said Smith. “It’s going to be with us for a while, and we can’t think for a minute that we have it solved — because we don’t.”Eileen Neville, dean of the School of Nursing at Springfield Technical Community College, concurred. She said the health care industry has succeeded in raising awareness about the nursing crunch. The challenge now, she said, is to create an educational infrastructure that can handle the growing number of applicants at area schools.

She said STCC and other schools are at or near capacity, and are looking to area hospitals and the state for help in expanding existing programs and perhaps creating an off-hours program.

“Everyone’s been writing that no one wants to get into nursing,” she said. “That’s not true. The applications are there … we just have to be creative and find ways to take more people into the programs.”

Grade Expectations

Looking back on the past few years, Smith said she has seen progress on several fronts, especially in efforts to make elected officials and the public at large aware of the problem and its possible impact on the quality of health care — today and tomorrow.

The attention given to the issue has helped spawn myriad efforts to sell the profession to young people — and also those who are not so young. Johnson & Johnson, for example, is investing millions in a multi-pronged effort to shed a positive light on a profession that hasn’t been helped by the images created in the media, she said.
Hospitals, meanwhile, have taken steps to help more people gain a nursing education — and work to reduce their vacancy rates in the process. Baystate, for example, is providing funding for nursing faculty members at several area schools, and like hospitals in the area, it has provided scholarships, tuition-reimbursement programs, and forgivable loans, which are granted to students in exchange for a commitment to work at the hospital — usually for a period of at least two years — upon graduation.

For those already in the profession, meanwhile, wages have moved upward, and hospitals and other providers have become more creative with scheduling and working conditions, which has helped with retention, as well as with efforts to recruit people already in the field, said Smith.

“Many people today are looking for flexibility,” she explained. “Some don’t want to work weekends or nights. Where possible, we’ve been allowing people to gain that flexibility and still work in nursing.”

As a result of these efforts, Baystate has been able to cut its vacancy rate to about 8{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, she said, which is well below the state average of about 17{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} and the national average, which now exceeds 20{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}. Still, as the current population of nurses ages and approaches retirement age, area educators and hospital administrators know they have to keep working at the problem.

One concern is the capacity at the area nursing schools, said Neville, who noted that while STCC accepts about 60 new students to its program every year, it must turn down perhaps five times that number. This helps maintain a strong quality among students in the program, but it doesn’t help produce more nurses, which is the primary concern.

Thus, STCC is exploring creation of an off-hours program, which, if it becomes reality, would be the first in this part of the state. An off-hours program would be attractive to many working individuals, said Neville, and it would allow the college to graduate perhaps another 30 or 40 nurses each year.

There are many hurdles to creating an off-hours program. Neville projects a price tag of about $200,000 per year, and funding is not yet in place. Meanwhile, finding faculty to staff an off-hours program will be challenging. But the concept is moving ever closer to reality, she said. “We’re close to the dream. We’re not there yet, but I think we can make this happen.”

Meanwhile, despite the healthy number of applicants at STCC and other schools, more must be done to educate young people about the field and let them know that nursing should be included on the list of attractive careers available to women, she said.

“Guidance councilors are still telling women they should be getting into computers,” said Neville. “Nursing is still a very attractive field, with good wages, and we should be encouraging not only women but men to get into it.”

Attracting men has never been easy, she said, but the numbers are increasing, due in part to rising wages — entry-level nurses can now expect to be paid $38,000 to $42,000 per year — but also to a general softening of many of the stereotypes about the profession and the men who enter it.

“Before, I think men were reluctant to get into nursing because it was perceived as a job for women, and men were truly in the minority,” she said. “But also, many men thought people would think something was wrong with them if they got into nursing — that they flunked out of medical school or something like that.

“It’s better now, and the numbers prove that,” she continued, adding that there are 12 men in the current class, a new high for the school.

The Bottom Line

In general, many things are better with regard to the nursing crunch, said Smith.

But this is not a problem that will be easily solved, and all those involved know that they can’t relax.

“We’ve certainly made some inroads,” she said, “but we still have a lot of work to do.”

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