The need for nurses is growing in Georgia. How will hospitals keep up with the demand?

Despite obstacles, Middle Georgia nurse accomplishes her dream

Registered nurse Ally Norris decided at a young age that she wanted to be a nurse while visiting her sick grandmother in the hospital. Norris is now a nurse at Coliseum Medical Centers and is pursuing a bachelors and masters degrees in nursing.
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Registered nurse Ally Norris decided at a young age that she wanted to be a nurse while visiting her sick grandmother in the hospital. Norris is now a nurse at Coliseum Medical Centers and is pursuing a bachelors and masters degrees in nursing.

The path to nursing wasn’t easy for Ally Norris.

She transferred between three different programs before finally earning her associate’s degree in nursing in 2017.

But even after bouts of failure and rejection, Norris was determined to accomplish her dream.

Norris remembered visiting her ailing grandmother in the hospital as a child, face wet with tears as nurses rushed to her grandma’s side. That’s when she knew that she wanted to be a nurse one day, so she could care for others like the nurses had cared for her nana.

“I never once wanted to be anything else besides a nurse from the time I was younger,” Norris said. “And that just kind of is what kept me pushing.”

Norris is one of approximately 80,000 nurses serving as the bedrock of Georgia’s health care industry — attending to patients’ every need in hospitals, hospices, clinics and schools across the state.

But Georgia faces a dire nursing shortage, and it’s only expected to get worse.

Georgia is on pace to have the sixth-highest gap between the supply and demand of nurses nationwide by 2030, according to a 2017 report by The National Center for Health Workforce Analysis.

Researchers estimate Georgia’s demand for registered nurses to rise to 101,000 in the next dozen years, while the supply is only projected to grow to 98,800. The state will likely need over 10,000 more licensed practical nurses than it can supply by 2030, as well.

As the need for nurses escalates, educators and health care providers are working together to grow the workforce, before the deficit gets out of hand.

Mercer University recently announced plans to offer a new accelerated program on its Atlanta campus that will allow qualified students to earn their Bachelor of Science in Nursing in just 12 months. The program will be geared towards students who have already received a bachelor’s degree in another field and want to make the switch to nursing.

“They want to really come back and get into nursing, and they don’t have half a decade in order to complete that degree,” said Linda Streit, dean of Mercer University’s Georgia Baptist College of Nursing.

The goal is to bolster the state’s entry-level nursing workforce, Streit said. With 60 percent of registered nurses age 50 or older, according to the Georgia Nurses Association, young nurses are needed to fill the growing breach.

“We’ve done the research,” Streit said. “If every nursing program in Georgia graduated the same number they’re doing right now and they all stayed in Georgia, we would still have a shortage. That’s how significant the shortage is.”

Mercer University has developed close-knit relationships with nearby Atlanta hospitals, which rely on nursing schools to recruit future employees. In Middle Georgia, nursing schools have also partnered with local hospitals to create a pipeline of providers.

“Part of our working relationship with the schools is really being able to help them, whether that’s to be able to offer to teach class, helping to have additional clinical rotations,” said Bridget Denzik, Chief Nursing Officer at Coliseum Medical Centers. “If you give them a memorable clinical rotation, they’re gonna come back for employment.”

A growing need for nurses

Multiple factors have contributed to the shortage of nurses across the state, Streit said.

“We have baby boomers in place who are living longer and living very productive lives, sometimes with those chronic conditions that still need health care in order to [live],” she said.

Georgia’s growing populace has exacerbated the issue, as well. The state’s overall population increased nearly 8 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to the United States Census Bureau.

“We’re going to need more health providers to care for those individuals,” Streit said.

With a large portion of the labor force nearing retirement, the gap between supply and demand is bound to increase.

A lack of nursing school faculty has also limited the field’s ability to grow. Nursing instructors on average earn about the same as registered nurses — $64,590 and $64,750, respectively — but more specialized nurses can earn substantially more. Nurse practitioners, for example, earn an average of $100,660, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The difference in pay, along with the extra years of graduate school, has dissuaded some nurses from taking on instructional roles.

And as nurses pursue higher levels of practice with more autonomy and better pay, they leave behind a void at the bedside. Nurses who once spent their whole careers in hospital units or long-term care facilities now go on to become nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, nurse midwives or clinical nurse specialists.

A shortage of physicians affects large swaths of the state, as well, causing rural communities to rely more on nurse practitioners, Denzik said. In those areas, more advanced nurse practitioners can provide a higher level of care where it’s needed most.

But the increase in the number of nurse practitioners hasn’t solved the health care crisis in rural communities, she said. Georgia law requires that nurses, regardless of practice level, work under the supervision of a physician.

Because nurse practitioners can’t act with complete autonomy, their capabilities only reach so far.

In turn, the state’s short supply of both nurses and physicians is stretched even thinner.

Other states, Denzik said, have allowed nurse practitioners to operate their own limited practices within a 50-mile radius of a supervising physician.

“That would really help with the shortage of nursing,” Denzik said. “It would help our physicians. It would help our patients in underserved, rural areas get the health care that they need.”

Sending more nurse practitioners to rural areas won’t solve the nursing shortage, though.

“That’s a catch-22 for us at the bedside, because it means we’re going to be losing more nurses,” Denzik said.

If Georgia doesn’t train and recruit more nurses, patients will suffer.

“Nursing plays a critical part in health care, because without nursing, the patients would not receive the care that they need throughout the day,” Denzik said.

Making due with limited resources

Local hospitals have taken steps to broaden their staffing pools, despite a limited workforce.

In April, Navicent Health launched a new initiative, called Flex Health, to expand its nursing staff. The hospital system also relies on overtime hours and traveling nurses to maintain a steady number of qualified caretakers on the floor, said Chief Nurse Executive Tracey Blalock.

Navicent Health hopes to instill an interest in nursing among teens in the community, as well. The hospital revived its Candy Striper program this year, bringing in students from Mount de Sales Academy and William S. Hutchings College and Career Academy to get a taste of nursing while they’re still in high school.

Coliseum Health Systems has boosted its bedside staff by offering regular support to its nurses, especially to those who are new to the field.

“Nursing is hard work,” Denzik said. “It can be backbreaking. It’s long hours on your feet. Oftentimes it may be foregoing a break, because you want to do something for your patient. And so, we have to make sure that we’re setting our nurses up for success.”

Nearly one in five nurses leaves their first job within a year, according to a 2014 study.

It’s up to nursing leaders to foster relationships with their staff and remove barriers that might hinder their success, Denzik said.

Support from colleagues has helped Norris balance tiring 12-hour shifts with schoolwork, family and the stress of minute-by-minute patient care.

“Once you’re off orientation and it’s your first day by yourself, it’s very nerve-wracking,” Norris said. “But everybody is always there to ask questions.”

Nursing school is tough, but the hard work is worth it, Norris said. The dire need for nurses has inspired her to keep pushing past every roadblock. And daily interactions with patients and their loved ones remind Norris why she chose this path.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be a nurse,” Norris said. “It really is.”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.