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Utah’s nurse shortage expected to worsen

But state is in better shape than other parts of U.S., providers say

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Although Utah nursing schools are getting more applicants than they can accept, the state still has a nursing shortage that's expected to get worse as baby boomers age and require more services.

Still, Utah's in better shape than many parts of the nation, local health-care providers agree.

An Associated Press story this week reported that hospitals and health-care employers in some communities are offering nurses large signing bonuses, child care and even maid or lawn service. Such incentives have been rare in Utah, although one hospital last year reportedly offered a $2,000 signing bonus.

"We've really tried not to do signing bonuses," said Madeline Buelt, a registered nurse and the associate administrator in charge of nursing for University Hospital. "We want the professional nurse and not the one who's jumping ship."

Area hospitals report they're actually doing slightly better at recruiting and retaining nurses than they were last year. Annie Holt of St. Mark's Hospital said that facility's "low turnover rate" has helped immensely. But the administrators all agree it's going to get worse in the future.

Experts say a lot of factors have contributed to a nursing shortage the American Nurses Association says could be critical starting in 2010, when thousands of nurses begin to retire. By 2020 they're predicting the country will have 80 percent of the nurses it needs.

For one thing, nursing used to be a traditional field for women to pursue. And while women still make up the majority of nurses, many now pursue other careers that were not readily available to them previously. More men are becoming nurses, but not in numbers great enough to make up the difference.

"When we went to school, girls were taught they could be nurses or secretaries. Now they know they can be anything," Buelt said. "Besides that, we have a generation that wants to work Monday through Friday."

Medical-reference Web sites are increasing the number of nurses they recruit to provide health-related information online.

Nationally, according to a report by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, enrollment in bachelor's programs has declined for five consecutive years. Last year, enrollments fell almost 5 percent, according to the Associated Press.

The American Nurses Association credited managed care with contributing to the crisis. A lot of hospitals nationally reduced nursing staffs to reduce their operating expenses. And teaching hospitals and medical schools were adversely impacted by recent federal balanced-budget acts.

At the same time, cost-reducing measures such as sending people home from hospitals sooner have also increased need for community-based nursing care.

The health of the state's university nursing programs is of critical importance to the health of the people in the state, said Sue Huether, interim dean at the U.'s college of nursing. Local schools are the greatest resource for local health-care facilities, since most graduating nurses stay in the area.

That's one reason Intermountain Health Care provided 20 nursing scholarships to the U. last year, according to spokesman Daron Cowley.

"We still have good application to our nursing programs," Huether said. "We have more students applying than we can admit to our baccalaureate program. But we still have a great shortage. The need for patient care services is increasing."

She said technology has also shortened length of hospital stay, again creating a need for nursing care outside of a hospital setting.

"The arena where we are providing health care has diversified. We have a great need for nurses. I think all the hospitals at least in the Salt Lake Valley have a shortage of nurses."

Utah hospitals and other programs have tackled the shortage in a variety of ways. For instance, University Hospital, according to Buelt, has created nursing internship programs in critical care and nursing research. There's a new mentoring program for new graduates. Those have created opportunities that have drawn applicants from as far away as Seattle and Albuquerque.

Because it's easier to find a good nursing jobs, wages and benefit packages have become much more competitive, Huether said.

Intermountain Health Care had 188 nursing positions open as of Thursday. But Cowley said that's not unusual. IHC employs more than 5,000 registered nurses and 1,000 licensed practical nurses.

Shortages are particularly acute in some departments, including critical care, operating rooms and labor and delivery. Some of the hospitals for that reason are offering cross-training programs.

E-MAIL: lois@desnews.com