Local hospitals administer small doses of prevention

May 12, 2002|BY KEVIN CLAPP

Officials at Washington County and Chambersburg, Pa., hospitals saw the writing on the wall.

Knowing they were not immune to nursing shortages, the two institutions took a proactive stance to head off problems before they arose.

Thus far, outside the box thinking mixed with a radical rethinking of the workplace environment has spelled success to the tune of having a full or nearly complete complement of nurses.

But they readily concede their work is just beginning.

"It probably is going to get worse before it gets better," says Louis Gregorio, Chambersburg Hospital vice president for human resources. "We've been very lucky. A lot of what we did paid off. We have a supply and what we're doing now is focusing our attention on making sure the supply continues to grow."


In recent years, the hospital has partnered with the Penn State Mont Alto nursing program; encouraged hospital employees to return to school for their RN degree; and started a program of offering loans to students in exchange for employment agreements.

A $15,000 loan to attend nursing school, for instance, turns into a four year commitment for the new nurse at the hospital.

"I see this as a means of increasing supply and lessening the burden on individuals that can't afford to go to school," Gregorio says. "I think there's a whole group of people with the ability to make this a good career but can't afford to because of the cost."

At Washington County Hospital, a two-month recruitment campaign ended on Friday with less than 1 percent of RN positions open.

Officials also have embarked on a continuing mission to refine the work environment to keep nurses on staff once they are recruited.

"Compensation by itself is not going to retain nurses," says Mary Towe, RN, MBA, the hospital's executive for nursing services.

So, while altering pay rates and continuing a process of tuition reimbursement (up to $90,000 spent each year), officials have also taken great pains to engage staff in an ongoing discussion of the work environment.

Post-graduate training time for new nurses has been increased, in some cases up to six months, so they are as prepared as possible to handle their jobs. The feeling is a better equipped nurse is liable to last longer.

Also included in the dialogue has been that nurses feel the job they do is respected.

"That's one of those intangible, squishy-soft things," says Vice President for Human Resources Brooks McBurney says. "But you know it when you've got it and you know it when you don't have it."

By opening lines of communication, providing information and a chance to vent frustration, the hospitals hope that a better environment will translate to a happier nursing population less apt to bolt the hospital for other jobs.

And, Towe points out, the cost of turning over a nurse "is astronomical," ranging between $25,000 and $50,000 to recruit, hire and train a replacement.

"It takes time and a lot of money, but we're seeing the fruits of what we've worked hard on for the last two years," Towe says. "It's a fragile work force, and if you don't put in place the mechanisms to support them they will find other places that will."

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