Problem likely to get worse in next few years
By James Thalman
Deseret News staff writer
A nursing shortage here labeled "not that bad" this spring apparently has gotten a lot worse over the summer.
Only Nevada and California have a more critical shortage than Utah, where hospitals are averaging 50 to 70 vacant positions, according to the Utah Nurses Association. Things are expected to get worse in the next five years as at least three new care facilities come on line and more nurses retire.
Besides somehow making up the current shortage, at least 450 licensed or degreed nurses are needed just for the new positions, and at least 850 more are needed to fill vacancies created by those who will leave the profession in the next few years, said nurse and legislative lobbyist Rebecca Richards.
"We need more nurses than what the nine colleges here can even produce," Richards said. "Besides that, we've got a critical shortage in the number of faculty members to teach them."
Nationally, there are 792 nurses per 100,000 people. In Utah, that ratio is 592 nurses per 100,000, she said. "And we're quickly losing a lot of them."
This past spring, nursing educators and recruiters were saying the shortage was worse in other parts of the country.
But Maureen Keefe, the new dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Utah who came from South Carolina, said that state considers itself in a nursing crisis because it only has 30,000 nurses in a state with 1.5 million people. Utah has 2.2 million people and 17,000 nurses. She believes the scope of the nursing shortage is international.
How does Utah suddenly find itself with a nurse shortage?
The nursing profession follows a cycle, Richards said. The current one has been spinning down since the glut of nurses in 1994 and the inception of managed care.
The shortage stems from the lack of interest in the profession combined with inherent cost containment of managed care, Richards said. Nurses are generally overworked and are delegating a lot of responsibility to skilled assistants, she said.
"Nursing care used to be one nurse to one or two or three patients," Richards said. "Now, it's one nurse for one to five assistants."
The number of bad-care complaints by patients has been increasing as the number of nurses has been declining, she said.
Lack of nursing is ultimately a problem for patients, she said. Richards and other nursing advocates have said many hospitals have gotten so bottom-line-oriented and short on nurses that hospitals pretty soon won't be hospitals.
The average starting salary for nurses with associate's degrees ranges from $11.50 to $16.35 per hour. The average beginning pay for nurses with bachelor's degrees ranges from $12.60 to $18.
There are plenty of students interested in becoming nurses. The problem is there are too few teachers and not enough space to dramatically increase the numbers, Richards said. The U. takes only about 120 students per year, for example. Utah Valley State College is starting a four-year degree in January, but it will accept only 20 students per year. Weber State University, which enrolls an average of 700 nursing students, is down two faculty members and enrolled 24 fewer students this year.
One way to fix the problem long term is to get more nurses to graduate with master's degrees and in clinical specialties, Keefe said. The solution won't work unless salaries for nurses are increased, however, she added.
An option might be to lure some nurses out of retirement. But that is a short-term answer at best and isn't a viable option for filling the need over the next five to 10 years, Keefe said.
Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City and a doctor, said perhaps it's time lawmakers consider taking action for nursing similar to the engineering initiative proposed last year by Gov. Mike Leavitt. The Legislature approved a version of the initiative, which is designed to improve education as well as jump-start the economy. It gave state engineering schools money to expand classloads, space and faculty to quickly increase the number of Utahns with graduate degrees in computer science and engineering.
Oct 6, '01
Surely removed original, posted in wrong thread.
Last edit by donmurray on Jul 25, '03