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Nurse Shortage Tests the Wits of Hospitals, Nonprofits, Schools

June 02, 2008
Nurse shortage tests the wits of hospitals, nonprofits, schools By Myung Oak Kim Originally published 11:45 p.m., May 26, 2008 Updated 01:53 a.m., May 27, 2008 Kalina Miller decided at a young age to become a doctor because her younger sister suffered from a severe illness as an infant. But she changed her mind in college while volunteering at Denver Health Medical Center. She saw nurses spending much more time with patients, working as "the eyes and ears of the doctors." "The way hospitals are set up today, nurses keep the system going," she said. Miller is part of the new generation of nurses trying to keep the medical system going in the midst of a nursing shortage expected to worsen in coming decades. The 24-year-old from Northglenn was among about 270 nursing-school students who graduated Friday from the University of Colorado at Denver during the first commencement at the new Anschutz Medical Campus, in Aurora. Saturday she watched her inspiration - her sister - graduate from high school. Miller plans to continue working as a nurse in the orthopedics unit at University of Colorado Hospital. The country has been facing a nursing shortfall for the past decade because of the aging nurse workforce and aging baby boomers who need more medical care. Colorado is among the 10 states with the most need for nurses. Applicants turned away For each nurse hired in Colorado, almost two positions are still available across the state, according to the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence, a nonprofit formed in 2002 to address the nurse shortfall. The average age of nurses is 47. In recent years, hospitals, nonprofit organizations and nursing schools have joined forces to tackle the problem. Schools have more than doubled the number of graduates since 2003, established accelerated programs and turned to high-tech dummies to simulate real-life illnesses for training. Hospitals and medical groups have also helped to create more clinical training opportunities. But they face a Catch-22. Nursing schools don't have enough experienced nurses with advanced degrees to train the students or enough nurses whom students can follow to get the necessary hands-on experience. That means schools can grow only so much and are turning away thousands of qualified applicants. The 11 nursing programs in the Colorado Community College System have more than 4,200 students on the waiting list, which can take up to four years to wait out. The University of Colorado at Denver has tripled its enrollment in nursing school from 150 in 2000 to 450 now, said Patricia Moritz, dean of the College of Nursing. But its upcoming undergraduate class has been reduced because of the lack of clinical training spots. Demand skyrockets Moritz said the aging of her teachers - the average age is 58 - and the small number of nurses with advanced degrees necessary to teach is a critical problem. Nurses also make much more money in the field than in academia. Of the 72 teaching jobs, Moritz had 19 vacancies this year and could find only seven full-time replacements. She filled the other slots with part- time instructors. Kaiser Permanente is part of a consortium trying to help. The company pays for five nurses to teach one day a week at nursing schools and helps employees pay for nursing education. Kaiser's doctor group, the Colorado Permanente Medical Group, also created a $1 million fund that pays for three simulation labs for nurses, among other things. It also helped establish a 13-month program in 2004 at Metropolitan State College of Denver that has produced about 125 nurses. But it's still not enough. To complete staffing needs, hospitals depend on part-time nurses hired through temp agencies or through firms that find experienced nursing from other parts of the country - travel nurses - to fill staffing holes. Exempla Lutheran Medical Center, in Wheat Ridge, has 800 staff nurses and 40 travel nurses, said Ann Evans, vice president and chief nursing officer. Exempla St. Joseph Hospital, in Denver, has 880 staff nurses and about 50 travel nurses. The future looks grim as the demand for nurses "skyrockets," Evans said. "I think we're going to have to be looking at doing things differently, being creative," she said, referring to the need to recruit more men and minorities into nursing. "It's going to be tricky." Miller plans to take the exam to become a registered nurse in June or July. She wants to eventually return to school to become a nurse practitioner. Even further down the line, she plans to become a nursing professor. "They're always going to need nurses, and that's not going to end any time soon." kimm@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-2361 Snapshot of shortage A look at nursing in Colorado: 675 nurses are hired every year, on average, to replace outgoing nurses. 1,600 people graduate every year from nursing schools. 2,150 nursing positions open up annually. 15,000 new nursing jobs are expected between 2004 and 2014. 45.6 percent growth is expected in the number of nursing jobs from 2004 to 2014. * More information about nursing programs is available at the Colorado Board of Nursing at 303-894-2430 or dora.state. co.us/NURSING and at the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence, 303-715-0343 or coloradonursingcenter.org. © Rocky Mountain News