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Nursing shortages continue as need grows in Middle Georgia

For years a shortage of nurses -- especially registered nurses -- has been a problem, so one would think maybe it had been resolved.

That’s not the case nationwide nor in Middle Georgia.

The shortage is created by a number of factors. More hospitals are requiring more RN-level nurses while at the same time nursing schools are dealing with a shortage of trained faculty, which means students can’t quickly get the education needed to become a nurse. In addition, there are more positions available now for trained nurses outside a hospital setting, so many of them move on to other fields -- usually for better hours and sometimes higher wages.

“The biggest nursing shortage is for RNs, specifically those in acute care hospital settings that require 24-hour coverage, including nights, holidays and weekends,” Navicent Health Chief Nursing Officer Tracey Blalock said in an email. “Recent studies have shown the average tenure of a hospital-based medical surgical RN is two to three years. Then they begin to specialize and find jobs that better fit their lifestyles.”

Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville admits about 56 students twice a year into its nursing program, said Deborah MacMillan, interim director for the School of Nursing.

The problem is they often have more than 100 applicants.

Students who don’t make it in reapply the next semester, “or they get a minor in something else, like community health, while they wait,” MacMillan said. Or students may try to get into another school’s nursing program.

The main reason the school can’t allow more students in the program is because it needs more nurse educators.

“We have a severe shortage of faculty,” MacMillan said.

The University of Georgia did a study of this problem and found “the number of faculty retiring in the next few years is staggering,” she said.

Georgia College has committed to train people to be nurse educators to help improve the situation, she said

Registered nurse was in the top five occupations projected to have the highest job openings from 2012 to 2022, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, last issued in December 2013. The number of job openings for RNs is expected to increase from 2.7 million to 3.2 million -- a 19.4 percent increase -- from 2012 to 2022. The national average annual wage is $65,500. The average for RNs in Georgia is about $61,600 a year.

Another factor leading to shortages is because the average age of employed RNs is rising, and many are looking to retire in the next few years.

At the same time, the general population older than 65 is increasing, according to a report by the American Nurses Association.

“This age group has many medical and health needs, and (it) will put a strain on our health system,” the report stated. Also, recent reforms in health care will give millions of people access to the health care system. ... These factors, combined with an anticipated strengthening of the economy, will create a renewed critical shortage for nurses.”

Chief Nursing Officer Candi Carroll at Coliseum Health System in Macon said its facilities especially need RNs to work in the acute care hospital setting as the hospital is moving away from hiring licensed practical nurses -- which require a lesser degree than RNs -- in that area.

“There is still a lot of value in what the LPN can do, but with the regulatory requirements around patient assessment and some of the medication administration, it makes it more difficult for hospitals to be able to use LPNs in the acute care, especially in the critical care, setting,” Carroll said.

The shortage is not found in some other levels, such as for certified nursing assistants, which “are much easier to come by because training is shorter, and it’s easier to get the training” needed, she said. CNAs work includes taking vital signs and assisting with bathing, feeding and transportation. These workers fill an important role.

“Often times they recognize something is wrong and notify the nurse,” Carroll said.

Duties of RNs include medication administration, assessment of the physical body and psychosocial situation, applying splints, bandages, managing ventilators, starting IVs and placing catheters, Carroll said.

Blalock with Navicent Health, said the duties can vary depending on the location within its health system.

“Some of our nurses provide care to the acutely ill, while others provide rehabilitation services in an acute setting or in a patient’s home,” she said. “Nursing is so diverse and is needed from beginning of life until the end. It is a career that is so very rewarding, and a nurse could potentially change roles every two years and not do everything a nurse has the potential to do.”

But a nurses’ work is hard and comes with a lot of stress. Most of the nurses at midstate hospitals work 12-hour shifts.

HOSPITALS OFFER TRAINING TO FILL JOBS

One way hospitals are dealing with the shortage of registered nurses is by offering training programs to help their nursing staff get the education and certification needed to become an RN.

“We have a pretty aggressive internal training program,” said Mindy Hartley, vice president for patient care and chief nursing officer with Houston Healthcare. “We have tuition assistance, and that has helped us to make sure we don’t have high nurse openings. But the areas where we tend to see more nurse openings are in critical care areas and the emergency room. The reason is ... many nurses go on to become nurse practitioners, and they go on to work in doctor’s offices and in (the drug store clinics). So there are so many more opportunities for nurses.”

Navicent Health and Coliseum also offer paid training programs, and they hire nurse externs -- students prior to graduation -- to work in a hospital setting.

“They usually work as certified assistant nurses, but they have an opportunity to learn about the hospital,” said Carroll with Coliseum. The hope is “when they graduate, they will become a permanent nurse with us. So that’s been a successful employment strategy for us with nurses. We also hire new graduates right out of school.”

Coliseum is holding a job fair for nurses 4-7 p.m. April 16 at Coliseum Cancer Center, 340 Hospital Drive. Anyone with questions may call 478-765-4144. Other area hospitals have recently held similar job fairs.

Being a nurse requires more than a degree.

Georgia College looks at GPA as well as the overall person to determine who gets a slot in the nursing program.

“They have to have a strong background in the sciences,” MacMillan said. “We have a lot of people want to be a nurse, but perhaps they are just not suited for it.”

Local hospital officials agree.

Blalock with Navicent Health said the hospital’s expectations for employees are based on a value structure.

“Those values include integrity, compassion, respect, excellence, commitment and teamwork,” she said.

Hartley with Houston Healthcare said critical thinking is important in a nursing candidate.

“They also have to have good customer service skills because we are dealing with very difficult situations, and families are often in very bad situations, and sometimes their stress level is high, so we want to be sure our folks have great customer service skills.”

Carroll with Coliseum said the hospital looks for compassion in applicants.

“We look for somebody who is driven by patient care versus just a paycheck,” she said. “We can teach an accountant to hand out medication, but you can’t teach someone’s heart to be compassionate.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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