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Treating the nursing shortage in the Tri-State

More than enough students and shortage of teachers

More than enough students and shortage of teachers

April 21, 2008|By DAN DEARTH

TRI-STATE - Sonja Barnes said she became a nursing instructor at Hagerstown Community College because she wanted to work better hours.

When she worked as a hospital nurse, Barnes said, the long shifts prevented her from spending quality time with her husband and three young children.

"(Teaching) is wonderful," Barnes said. "The best part is I have the summers off, and the weekends and holidays."

But not all nurses feel that way. Some find working flexible schedules can be a boon because doing so enables them to earn more money through shift differentials and overtime.

That means nurses can earn more money than nursing instructors.

Nursing instructors - who are required to have master's degrees - earn about $55,000 a year, or about the same as a nurse with a lesser degree and a few years of experience.

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That pay situation is one of the reasons there are too few instructors to teach a growing number of potential nursing students, local and national nursing officials say.

The scarcity of instructors, in turn, plays a role in the national nursing shortage, they say.

"The biggest challenge is the pay and the incentive for nurses to become instructors," said Mary Towe, vice president and chief nursing officer at Washington County Hospital.

To help ease the problem, hospitals and schools have joined forces in an attempt to attract and educate more potential nursing instructors.

Neil McLaughlin, vice president of operations at War Memorial Hospital in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., said the nursing shortage hasn't hit home at this point, but he knows of other hospitals across the country that recruit nurses from the United Kingdom and the Philippines to fill the void.

"It's a huge problem," McLaughlin said. "(War Memorial Hospital) was just fortunate."

The problem won't get any better until the government allocates more funding to colleges and universities so they can pay nursing instructors a competitive wage, said Cheryl Peterson of the National Nurses Association.

"The (government) has to look at this and see we're in an emergency," Peterson said. "We have to start talking about health-care reform so the future demand can be mitigated."

Karen Hammond, sophomore nursing coordinator at Hagerstown Community College, said she has been a nurse since 1981 and earned a master's degree in trauma critical care from the University of Maryland.

She said making a choice between nursing and teaching is not always about money. For some, she said, it is a lifestyle choice. Instead of following through with her plan to work part time, Hammond said, she gravitated toward teaching for the better hours.

"It was thousands of dollars a year less that I took to teach," Hammond said. "These students (who graduate) in May will make more than their instructors."

Hammond said nurses should be encouraged to earn master's degrees by offering them incentives.

If that doesn't happen, instructors will have to double up with students as the shortage grows worse, she predicted.

"Instructors will work twice as hard and won't be able to spend enough quality time with each student," Hammond said.

Tuition help

Lou Gregorio, vice president of human resources at Chambersburg (Pa.) Hospital, said Summit Health, the parent company of Chambersburg and Waynesboro (Pa.) hospitals, offers tuition loan extensions for nurses so they can go back to school to earn bachelor's and master's degrees.

In some cases, the hospital will pay back a portion of a nurse's student loan in exchange for a work commitment, Gregorio said. If a nurse pledges to work three years at one of the hospitals, for example, he or she could receive up to $15,000 in financial aid.

"They could leave" if they wished, he said. "They would just have to pay the loan back."

Gregorio said Summit Health provides students with clinical settings that offer real-world training, While students are in a clinical setting, the hospital makes its nurses available to help teach, he said.

Growing Your Own

Judy Breitenbach, nursing programs director at Towson University's Hagerstown branch, said her faculty support was limited when Towson brought its program to Hagerstown in the fall of 2006. Through Towson's Grow Your Own program - designed to increase the number of qualified instructors - the number of teachers has grown from three to seven, she said.

The Grow Your Own program enables nursing students to earn master's degrees through an accelerated program, according to Towson University's Web site.

Breitenbach said the program was made possible at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown's Towson branch with the help of a Maryland Higher Education Commission grant and the Nurse Support Program II, through which hospitals are allowed to keep a portion of their revenue to put back into educating nurses.

About $8.8 million has been generated annually for NSP II since 2005, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Loaning instructors

Towe said Washington County Hospital and Hagerstown Community College are collaborating, with the help of grant money, to ease the shortage of instructors.

Towe said HCC has committed to doubling the size of its nursing program.

For the hospital's part, "we are funding through the grant, nurses to get their master's degree," then loaning those nurses to HCC, where they will work as instructors for up to two years, Towe said.

She said such efforts are expected to ease the nursing shortage, but not erase it.

"We are hoping to bridge the gap from what we perceive to be a 20 percent mismatch between nurses who are needed and nurses who are available" to "something that is more sustainable, say between 8 (percent) and 12 percent," Towe said.

"So," she said, "we are not even projecting in the foreseeable future being able to meet 100 percent of the need."

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