More nurses, please

April 20, 2008|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN -- Colleges and universities in the Tri-State area are forced to turn away qualified nursing students despite warnings from experts in the field who say nursing shortages will worsen as existing nurses retire.

Cheryl Peterson, senior policy fellow of the American Nurses Association, said 1 million new nurses will be needed in the United States by 2012.

"I think we're past critical," she said. "We've been talking about nursing shortages since 2000 and 2001."

The reason for the national nursing shortage is simple: There are not enough nursing instructors to teach a growing number of potential students, said Judy Breitenbach, program director of nursing at Towson University's branch at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown.

"It is common knowledge that there is a national, as well as an international, nursing shortage," she said. "Nursing faculty are a scarce commodity, and most likely will continue to be until certain issues are addressed."


In the past, nursing shortages occurred because not enough people were interested in going into the field, but that's not the case this time, said Mary Towe, vice president and chief nursing officer at Washington County Hospital.

Now, "one out of two people who are fully qualified to enter a nursing program are turned away" because schools do not have enough instructors to accommodate the number of prospective students, Towe said.

Breitenbach and others in the field said salary is one of the reasons why nurses don't go into teaching.

Although some nurses become instructors to work better hours, others continue to practice for the higher salary, Towe said. An instructor with the master's degree that is required to teach and several years of experience, for example, earns about $55,000 per year, about the same as a nurse with three years of experience, but no master's degree.

In addition to the faculty shortage, Peterson said the problem is related to a decline in the number of nursing students in the past, including during the 1990s, when hospitals consolidated and jobs were eliminated.

As baby boomers age, the need for health-care professionals will increase, even as nurses in that age group retire, Peterson said. Then, the demand for nurses will grow even further.

Ideally, the patient-to-nurse ratio shouldn't be greater than 4 to 1, and 2 to 1 in intensive-care settings, she said. That ratio is likely to increase if the number of nurses doesn't grow to accommodate retiring baby boomers.

"Nurses will feel the stress," Peterson said. "They're a pretty stressed-out group."

Looking ahead

Tanya Jordan, a nurse with 30 years of experience, said she has seen firsthand the problems that high patient-to-nurse ratios can cause. When she worked as a hospital nurse outside the area about 20 years ago, the ratio of patient to nurse was 20 to 1 in the hospital's renal unit, she said.

"It was extremely stressful," said Jordan, who now works as the nursing director at Homewood Retirement Center in Williamsport. "You would leave work every day just hoping you didn't forget to do something."

Jordan said a nursing shortage can prevent nurses from providing the type of quality care they have been trained to provide. Although the nursing shortage is critical now, the problem will crest when baby boomers begin to retire, she said.

"We won't have enough nurses to take care of us," Jordan said. "There won't be enough nursing homes. There won't be enough beds to put us in. We live longer and longer."

Jordan said nurses feel stress in nursing homes, too. Like their colleagues in hospitals, nursing home nurses have patients who "crash" and require immediate medical attention. She said it's a different kind of stress, however, because nurses in retirement homes get emotionally attached to the residents.

"We become their extended family," Jordan said. "You look at them more as a person than a patient."

Lou Gregorio, vice president of human resources at Chambersburg (Pa.) Hospital, said he didn't believe there was a negative correlation between the nursing shortage and the quality of care, but conceded hospital administrators would need to find innovative ways to ensure that nurses are able to spend enough time with patients.

He said, for instance, that registered nurses might have to transfer some of their duties to others.

Vying for slots

One possible advantage of the shortage is that it allows colleges and universities to be more selective during the admissions process.

At any given time, about 350 HCC students declare themselves as pre-nursing majors, said Carolyn Albright, director of health sciences and nursing at HCC. About 40 of those students were admitted in the fall of 2007.

Although students are required to have at least a 2.5 grade-point average in their core college courses to enter the nursing program at HCC, the average GPA of students who entered last fall's class was 3.4, Albright said.

"It's very competitive," Albright said. "People who are doing just enough to get by probably won't get in ... We're not any different than most of the nursing schools."

On Monday

· Hospitals and schools have joined forces in an attempt to attract more potential nursing instructors.

· Instructors are working to teach nursing students what they need to know when they leave school and find themselves in hospital settings.

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