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Nurses are an integral part of health care and the system would collapse without them. It's a serious job. The demands are many, the stress high, the hours awkward and the work keeps getting more technical.

Just how much society owes to the many hard-working and oft-forgotten nurses in its midst should be remembered as the state prepares to observe National Nurses Week, beginning May 1. Sooner or later, most people will be in their care.Will there be enough to go around? For several years, cries of doom and gloom have been raised about the shortage of nurses nationwide and in Utah - estimated to be 20 percent by 1990 - and about the growing crisis in health care as a result.

While some of those fears are becoming reality elsewhere, a curious thing seems to be taking place in Utah. According to nursing officials at Intermountain Health Care, the law of supply and demand has driven up wages, hospitals are trying to be more imaginative in meeting the needs of nurses and the shortage at IHC hospitals is only 3 to 4 percent.

Shortages are due in part to increasing needs, rather than a diminishing supply. And there is a relatively high turnover in the profession.

Nationally, a slow decline in the number of nursing graduates is projected through the year 2000. Fortunately, in Utah nursing remains an appealing career for young people. There are more applications at the University of Utah, for example, than there is room to accept them.

Starting salaries have risen to the point where they compare favorably with other professions. Men are beginning to enter the field, although they still make up only about 4 percent of the total in Utah.

Part of the nursing shortage is alleviated by heavy use of part-time workers, something that nursing is uniquely suited to offer. There aren't many jobs where a person can work one or two days a week or in the middle of the night or just on weekends.

IHC hospitals are trying to reduce the turnover by meeting other needs of nurses, such as providing day care for children of nurses. Except in this case, it is day or night care or on weekends. Traditional day care businesses don't offer help at the odd hours nurses are apt to work.

Utahns should take the opportunity to pay tribute to nurses and all they do. Anyone who has been in a hospital should have no trouble remembering one or more nurses with deep affection - who made the stay more bearable and recovery more rapid.