Incentives help fight shortage of nurses

December 16, 2002|by RICHARD BELISLE

MONT ALTO - When nurses talk about the shortage of people in their profession, they refer to it as their "Bermuda Triangle."

"There are more patients because the baby boomer generation is aging, more nurses are reaching retirement age and fewer people are entering the nursing profession," said Marilyn M. Teeter, interim coordinator of the nursing program at Penn State Mont Alto.

Nationwide, the situation is extremely critical, said Christine K. Miller, director of Human Resources at Waynesboro Hospital in Waynesboro, Pa.

"Research shows that it will become more critical," she said.

Waynesboro Hospital is owned by Summit Health of Chambersburg, Pa., which also owns Chambersburg Hospital.

Miller also blames the shortage on the aging baby boomer population that is needing more health care and on fewer students in nursing schools. Like Teeter, Miller said while nursing is primarily a women's profession - only about 10 percent are men, she said - young women today have many more career options than their mothers and grandmothers had.


"There are a lot more glitzy, glamorous jobs in the information sciences, marketing and public relations fields," Teeter said.

"Nursing is a physically demanding profession," Miller said. "Nurses are retiring sooner. They're leaving acute care jobs in hospitals to work in physicians' offices where it's less demanding."

Both Summit Health hospitals maintain a vacancy rate of about 10 percent in their nursing staffs. Waynesboro Hospital is down seven registered nurses and Chambersburg has 21 vacancies.

"That's pretty standard for us," Miller said.

Hospitals everywhere are developing recruitment and retention programs to maintain staffing levels, Teeter said. Some in metropolitan areas offer two 12-hour shifts on weekends that constitute full-time work with benefits, she said.

"Those hours are better for nurses with families." Summit offers competitive salaries and benefits, and it provides up to $15,000 in loans to students who enroll in nursing schools and wipe out the debt if they work for the hospital for three years, Miller said.

A new graduate nurse with a two-year associates degree can start at around $20 a hour, she said. The salary scale goes to $27 an hour.

Summit Health also offers sign-on bonuses of up to $15,000 for registered nurses , Miller said.

Two years ago, Summit gave Penn State Mont Alto $40,000 to hire an additional teacher in its nursing program. That and a $25,000 donation from a private couple enabled the campus to hire the extra teacher, Teeter said.

Before then, the school had room for 60 associate degree slots and graduated 30 students a year. The graduation class jumped to 40 students with the extra teacher, Teeter said.

The two-year program, the first in the Penn-State system, opened at Mont Alto 12 years ago, she said. The college also offers a four-year nursing degree.

Esther North, 24, of Waynesboro has worked at Waynesboro Hospital for more than three years. She said that with the shortage, nurses in some hospitals work harder, have less time with patients and get burned out.

Nurses come to Waynesboro and Chambersburg hospitals because of the 40-hour work week and no mandatory overtime, she said.

"We have a ratio of one nurse to four to six patients. Other hospitals have an eight- or nine-to-one ratio," she said.

She said she has spoken with nurses from other hospitals who complain there's no time to do what they went into nursing to do.

"There's a desperate need for nurses," said Cynthia Barclay, 44, of Carlisle, Pa., a nursing student at Mont Alto. "It makes it hard for patients to get proper care."

She also spoke of long hours and burnout.

"Some people are finding that it's not as glamorous as they once thought it was," she said.

Amy Cromwell, 20, of Littlestown, Pa., is working on a four-year nursing degree at Mont Alto.

"Not everyone can be a nurse," she said. "I know that I can."

Nursing involves shift work and working weekends and holidays, said student Lisa Neil, 27, of Marion, Pa. She worked as a licensed practical nurse at Chambersburg Hospital for two years before enrolling at Mont Alto.

The nursing shortage has not discouraged her from becoming an registered nurse.

"I like it; that's why I'm continuing with it," she said. "Nursing is a hands-on science. It takes a lot of different skills.

"With nursing, you know that somewhere you did somebody some good, that you made a difference."

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