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Flexible benefits and part-time work schedules, company-operated day care, bonuses and increased pay for nurses have helped Utah avoid closed hospital rooms and the other ramifications of the national nursing crunch.

A group of nurses from Intermountain Health Care, the Utah-based hospital chain, says such changes in nursing aren't widely known, so they used the observance of National Nurse's Day Saturday and Utah Nurses Week through May 11 to clear up misconceptions about their profession."We feel there are changes going on in the nursing profession that the public isn't hearing about," said Mary Ann Holladay, IHC director of employee relations.

A 1986 nursing task force report, predicting a 20 percent nursing shortage for Utah by 1990, was well publicized, but Holladay said that doesn't seem to be coming true, at least not at IHC, which employs almost 3,000 of the 7,722 nurses working in Utah. The nursing shortage at IHC hospitals is 3 to 4 percent.

Colleen Price, executive director of the Utah Nurses Association, said she, too, believes the shortage won't be as severe as originally predicted, but she thinks Utah's nursing shortage outside of IHC hospitals, particularly in rural areas and nursing homes, is much higher than 4 percent.

The task force is collecting data now to update its report, Price said.

A number of factors, such as more acutely ill patients who place greater demands on nursing care and increased career opportunities for women, have combined to cause the nursing shortage nationwide, said Debbie Wirth of Primary Children's Medical Center.

But, the nurses said, Utah has been able to continually attract young people into nursing and keep them, despite challenges to nursing elsewhere.

Greater work flexibility, for example, means that nearly one-third of Utah's nurses work part-time, juggling career and family. And because a nurse's schedule often doesn't fit the hours offered by private day-care centers, IHC is operating three 24-hour day-care centers and more are planned.

Mary Ann Young, IHC assistant administrator at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, said the professional needs of nurses are also being met with more autonomy and a greater role in decision making; increased educational opportunities, including the availability of refresher courses for nurses wanting to re-enter the work force and of educational videotapes for nurses in rural areas; the ability to choose from a wide range of nursing specialities; and a clinical ladder system.

The clinical ladder is a fairly new alternative to rewarding nurses who move away from the bedside. The ladder system offers professional recognition and higher wages to nurses who accept greater patient-care responsibilities. The project at LDS Hospital is being readied for expansion into other hospitals.

Wages for all nurses have climbed dramatically in the last few years. The average pay for IHC nurses is $27,000. Price said that figure is comparable for non-IHC nurses in Utah. The beginning salary for a registered nurse in Utah is $23,000.

The problem, however, comes when nurses reach the top of the pay schedule quickly, within seven or eight years, the IHC nurses said.

During Utah Nurses Week, Utah hospitals will hold various activities, including luncheons, parties, speakers and fashion shows for their nurses.

The Utah Nurses Association will also hold its annual convention May 10-12 at the Red Lion.