SALT LAKE CITY — Educators inquired with legislators Tuesday about what funding can be provided to allow for higher enrollment in nursing programs in Utah, citing both a nurse shortage in the state and schools' inability to admit all qualified students.
Currently, there are 1,200 to 1,500 nurse vacancies in the state, said Teresa Garrett, project director for the Utah Nursing Consortium and professor at the University of Utah College of Nursing.
"There's an issue in the nursing workforce," Garrett told the Legislature's Social Services Appropriations Committee in a hearing at the Capitol.
Despite that, about 1,000 students who are well-qualified are turned down from public nursing schools each year, she said, because of a lack of capacity. The Utah Nursing Consortium, a coalition made up of the state's eight publicly funded nursing schools, would ultimately like to achieve a 25 percent increase in student enrollment capacity, Garrett said.
"We are facing a crisis in nursing," Dale Maughan, chairman of the Department of Nursing at Utah Valley University, told the committee. "(There is) an extreme need we have for nurses in our communities."
David Gessel, executive vice president of the Utah Hospital Association, echoed those concerns from a health care provider's perspective. Gessel threw his support behind more state funding for nursing programs.
"The hospitals are very interested in this, and the industry is very interested. Trying to find quality applicants (for nurse positions) is a huge problem," he said. "This really is an issue throughout the state."
Garrett said additional funding in Utah for nursing programs would not require costly "brick and mortar" investments. Universities have the physical space to accept more nursing students, she said, but simply need more funds to increase student capacity.
The committee is expected to study the issue further before considering any action in next year's legislative session. Lawmakers also expressed concern about Utah's shortage of qualified nurses.
"We better start working because it's not something you can fix in a year," said Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan.
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, inquired into whether there was any room for improved efficiency in higher education nursing in Utah. Thurston wondered whether nursing schools can accept a few more students at the same overall cost.
Gessel responded by saying nursing schools cannot afford to stretch finances any thinner with regard to paying for instructors, especially considering the heightened importance of small class size in that field.
"Instructor-to-student ratios are really important to patient safety," he said. "It's that intense clinical supervision that allows us to ensure that quality process for patients."