Area suffers effects of nationwide nurse shortage

January 10, 2001

Area suffers effects of nationwide nurse shortage

By STACEY DANZUSO / Staff Writer, Chambersburg

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - A nursing shortage has forced Chambersburg Hospital to temporarily shut down one of its operating rooms and postpone some elective surgeries this month, officials said Tuesday.


Personnel at other hospitals in the Tri-State area, including Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown and City Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., said they, too, face nursing shortages.

A series of events triggered the Chambersburg move, including an increase in the number of patients last year, a nationwide shortage of registered nurses and unexpected leaves of absence taken by several of the hospital's operating room nurses, said David Carlson, vice president of medical affairs.

Hospital officials decided to close one of the hospital's seven operating rooms last week but hope to have sufficient staff to reopen it within the next few weeks, Carlson said.


The temporary closure has prompted surgeons to postpone between three and 10 elective procedures a day, including cataract and knee surgeries.

The health-care industry began to take note of the nursing shortage about a year ago, Carlson said.

"There is a huge demand at the national and local level. I can't imagine any agency not affected," he said. "We're all competing for a limited employment pool."

With a half-dozen hospitals in the Tri-State area vying for nurses, it's becoming increasingly difficult to attract new nurses, Carlson said.

"As a result, we found ourselves in a position to close one of seven operating rooms. Those procedures considered to be elective are scheduled further out," he said. He stressed that the elective procedures have not been canceled, and that staff is available for all urgent and emergency procedures.

"It's a short-term, acute problem," he said.

Carlson was optimistic that staff members who were on leave would return in the next few weeks and the hospital could then reopen the seventh operating room. He also was planning to hire more operating room nurses and surgical technicians as soon as possible to staff the eighth operating room, which is currently not used.

On average, it takes about 90 days to fill an operating room nurse position or surgical technician position.

Because operating room nurses go through an additional six to 12 months of training, Carlson said the hospital couldn't borrow nurses from other specialties to fill the operating room vacancies.

Instead, the hospital has had to pull in nurses on administrative duty that had prior operating room experience, Carlson said.

The shortage at Chambersburg Hospital has not affected its affiliate, Waynesboro Hospital.

The staffs at the two hospitals work independently, and while Waynesboro Hospital has been affected by the general nursing shortage, it has not created problem in the operating room.

"It's a regional situation. Everyone is feeling the pinch," Carlson said.

Officials at City Hospital in Martinsburg and at Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown said they've had trouble staffing nursing positions.

City Hospital has had an overall vacancy rate of 9 percent in nursing services, including registered nurses, licensed practitioners and unit secretaries, in the past few months.

"Whenever any position is vacant, it falls to someone to pick up that work," said Kathleen Wotring, chief nursing officer at City Hospital.

At times the shortage has spiked, but Wotring said that compared to other places the hospital is doing well, using nurses from a network of temporary nurses, including traveling nurses from as far away as Florida, who come on 13-week assignments.

Despite her best efforts, Wotring said some shifts don't have all of the staff called for in the hospital's master staffing plans.

"That doesn't mean our patients are in danger. I would curtail services before trying to provide care that wasn't safe," she said.

Wotring said the shortage is due to the number of career opportunities now available to women, who largely made up the nursing field in the past.

Enrollment at nursing schools nationwide has been dropping for the last five years and shows no sign of turning around, she said.

That, coupled with a demand for more nurses in the private sector - doctors' offices and home health agencies - has created the problem.

"Most of those places don't require you to work nights and weekends," she said.

The problem has also hit Washington County Hospital, which has had to cope with a shortage of nurses over the last several months, said Maureen Theriault, a hospital spokeswoman.

The hospital has a standing ad on its Web site and offers sign-on and recruitment bonuses, but so far, it is faring better than most Maryland hospitals.

"In terms of the overall vacancy rate in Maryland hospitals, we are one of the ones with the lowest vacancy rates," Theriault said.

She said nurse managers are constantly evaluating their staffing resources to use them in the most effective way.

So far, the hospital has not had to take any long-term or drastic measures, but on occasion it has had to postpone some elective surgeries, she said.

"We are also trying to make sure patients in monitored beds are moved to one of the floors in a timely fashion and patients ready for discharge are discharged as efficiently as we can." she said.

Recent quarantines for the flu at four area nursing homes have added to the problem.

"Patients who are to go back to the nursing homes from the hospitals, or those who came to the hospital and need nursing home care, have to wait longer," Theriault said.

Theriault said Wednesday she did not have the names of the four nursing homes.

The Herald-Mail Articles