Groups want state to invest more money to retain, recruit nurses

Published 4:58 pm Friday, September 22, 2006

Pam Farris knows firsthand what can happen when there’s a nursing shortage in a hospital, anything from diminished services to stressed caregivers who might make a mistake.

“Many nurses have left the profession because of the burnout, having to take so many patients, having to have a higher level of acuity of patients,” she said. “It’s a very stressful situation, especially when those things happen.”

Farris, nurse manager at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said more needs to be done to address the state’s critical nursing shortage. She was among more than a dozen representatives from the health care community who gathered at the Capitol on Thursday to press lawmakers to provide more funding for School of Nursing faculty salaries and other programs.

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The Mississippi Hospital Association and the Mississippi Nurses Association announced the “Saving Nurses Saves Lives” campaign, which aims to recruit and retain faculty and produce more nurses in the state.

The state’s nursing shortage is a result of a lack of qualified faculty at the schools, said Ricki Garrett, executive director of the nurses’ association.

The state has an 8.7 percent faculty vacancy rate. The lack of instructors resulted in 2,300 qualified nursing school applicants being turned away from programs this year, said Marcella McKay, a vice president at the Mississippi Hospital Association.

“Because of retirements that are anticipated and heavy competition for the talent pool that makes up the nursing faculty, by the year 2009, we anticipate a 35 percent vacancy rate,” said McKay. “Recognized national authors have actually referred to nursing faculty as an endangered species.”

The nursing shortage is a national problem that is expected to grow worse in the coming years as baby boomers get older.

The most dramatic response to the national shortage has been recruiting from overseas, which has tripled in the last six years, and Garrett said that practice is on the horizon in Mississippi.

The state’s hospital vacancy rate for registered nurses was 7.9 percent in 2005, according to a survey conducted by the Mississippi Office of Nursing Workforce. By 2007, the need for staff RNs is expected to increase by 5 percent. That doesn’t include the need for nurses at personal care homes and nursing homes.

One of the best examples of the shortage is at UMC, which recently had to close beds in its Blair E. Batson Hospital pediatric center because of a lack of pediatric nurses.

Curtis Upkins, who works in the human resources department of St. Dominic’s hospital in Jackson, said that the state has about 18,600 RNs, but the market demands about 21,000. He said the shortage could lead to patients not being treated on a timely basis and some elective procedures being denied.

Lawmakers approved a $6,000 pay raise for nursing faculty this year. Currently, the average salary is around $40,000. Industry officials say those same instructors could go into the private sector and make up to $80,000.

McKay said the faculty salaries are below the Southeastern average and that Mississippi is losing qualified nursing instructors to border states that can offer more money.

The groups’ news conference comes during the first week of the Joint Legislative Budget Hearings, where lawmakers listen as agency heads make their pitch for funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2007.

The hearings are the beginning of the process that lawmakers use to determine how much funding each agency will get. The Board of Nursing appears before the committee on Tuesday.

The “Saving Nurses Saves Lives” campaign recommends that the state, among other things:

— Partner with educational institutions and the health care industry to continue an aggressive campaign to make students aware of the career opportunities in the nursing profession.

— Encourage high schools to establish magnet schools or career academies in the health professions.

— Institute a phased retirement program to reduce the number of nursing faculty retiring in any given year.