Special Reports

February 28, 2013

Nursing shortage: Good for nurses, bad for patients

Betty Smith-Campbell has run the nursing school at Wichita State University for about 14 months.

Betty Smith-Campbell has run the nursing school at Wichita State University for about 14 months.

Part of her job is to see to it that sick people in our area get good nursing care. Two people who help coordinate that effort are Kathy Neely and Linda Goodwin, who are, respectively, the chief nursing officers of Wesley Medical Center, and Via Christi Hospitals Wichita.

All three say this is a relatively good time to be a nurse. But that the next few years might not be a good time to be a patient.

The country is facing a severe nursing shortage as more nurses retire and as aging baby boomer patients need more nursing care.

The state, anticipating this, allowed WSU – starting in 2008 – to increase the number of nursing students WSU is allowed to graduate from 40 a semester to 60. And WSU created an additional accelerated degree program that produces another 30 graduates annually.

That, Smith-Campbell said, meant that WSU went from graduating 80 nursing students to 150 per year.

That’s still not enough to help the state meet future needs.

Although there is a nationwide nursing shortage that could downgrade the care of patients, since 2011 WSU has had to turn away 57 percent of all qualified applicants for its nursing school.

WSU produces nurses with four-year and other advanced degrees, a good thing because there is a national push in health care to generate more advanced-degree nurses.

Nursing schools like WSU struggle with a long list of challenges that will impact not only WSU, but patient care.

What that means, said Via Christi’s Goodwin, is that “we cannot ignore our responsibilities to assure that nursing schools like WSU are viable in the future.”

Neely agreed. Unless everyone in the health care community gets involved in a way to address the challenges, “we might see some disturbing trends in the future,” affecting patient care.

Smith-Campbell outlined the challenges:

• Many nurses locally and nationally are nearing retirement age, in part because many are baby boomers, in part because many of them put off retirement after the 2008 recession began but might be leaving soon now. Nursing profession leaders now worry that the number of vacant jobs in nursing might grow substantially in the coming years.
• The average pay for a registered nurse in the Wichita area is $55,350, according to the 2011 Kansas Wage Survey. Because of budget constraints at the university, nursing professionals can make more money practicing than teaching nursing. As a result when a faculty position opens, and WSU advertises it, she said, it is common for no one to apply for the job.

Because of government budget cuts, no faculty member at WSU’s nursing school has received a raise since 2008. Some faculty members are teaching extra classes.

• Nursing students need not just classroom work, but clinical work, where they learn by laying hands on people. There are only so many clinical positions available, even though Via Christi and Wesley and other entities provide them.

Moreover, Neely said, the baby boom generation is getting older, which means there are more sick people. Increased obesity is a problem, and not only for patients.

Increased obesity in the population means there are more people coming in the hospital door with diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses. And heavier patients create more physical demands on nurses because they must move these heavier people around in bed when needed.

Years ago, Neely said, it caused a stir among nurses when they realized their hospitals had to buy more bed scales that could handle 500-pound patients. But in recent years, though most patients weigh less than that, they’ve even had to buy bed scales handling a few patients who weigh 750 pounds or more.

Possible solutions

But if everyone sees the challenges facing nursing schools, including the two chief nursing officers of Wichita’s two primary hospitals, is anyone suggesting solutions?

Goodwin and Neely both said hospitals and nursing schools are looking more closely at “simulation training,” and not only because it could somewhat mitigate the nation’s shortage of nursing faculty. Simulation training, Goodwin and Neely said, is a good idea. New technology in recent years has created mannequins who can talk, interact with doctors and nurses—and graphically recreate many medical situations nurses and doctors in past history could only learn in clinic work or on the job: how to save a person in cardiac arrest, for example. How to deliver a baby.

Simulation training is a growing trend in health care education, and one local group, headed by cardiothoracic surgeon Paul Uhlig, is trying to create Wichita as a regional hub for the training. But that group has been slowed by a shortage of money even though health care professionals all agree simulation training is a good idea.

Helping the nursing schools means helping all of health care, Goodwin and Neely said. Both hospital systems provide clinical care opportunities to the WSU school, and as many as a dozen other schools. “It’s good for them and for us,” Goodwin said. “They get hands-on training, and we get to see their students. And their students and faculty keep us sharp with the latest trends.”

“I share Betty’s concerns,” Goodwin said. “We, as nursing executives in hospitals or in academic centers, all share the responsibility of assuring that there are enough nurses available in the future. That is why we at Via Christi are so involved with the WSU school.

“We cannot ignore our responsibility to assure that nursing schools are viable in the future,” she said.

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