Hospitals taking care of nurses
By ANDI ATWATER, firstname.lastname@example.org
Published by news-press.com on June 14, 2004
What once was a back-breaking job is now becoming a pain-free one as hospitals figure out how to keep their nurses from getting hurt.
Or how to keep their nurses, period.
As baby boomers get older, nurses as a workforce are aging at more than twice the rate of any other profession, prompting hospitals to find creative ways to keep them from quitting, retiring or getting injured.
"We're so focused on retention ... we're looking at all we can do to promote employee health and injury prevention," said Joan Odorizzi, director of medical telemetry at Cape Coral Hospital.
There are roughly 21,000 fewer nursing students today than in 1995, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
And in 1999, one study found that 5 percent of female college freshmen and less than .05 percent of men identified nursing as being among their top career choices.
Not long ago, nursing was a job marked by low wages, little respect and high burn-out rates. Today it has blossomed into a highly valued, educated and lucrative career.
But nurses are quickly approaching middle age and beyond, and Lee County hospitals are adopting policies to accommodate them.
On average, U.S. nurses are 43.3 years old, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. In Lee County, they're even older-44.5 within the Lee Memorial Health System and 47 at Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center/Gulf Coast Hospital.
This year, Lee Memorial adopted a no-lift policy and spent almost $500,000 to equip three pilot sites-Cape Coral Hospital, The Rehabilitation Hospital and HealthPark Care Center-with state-of-the-art patient handling equipment.
Nurses began training last week and the system hopes to go live with it in July.
"We're spending half a million dollars a year on musculoskeletal type of injuries from patient handling," said Sandra Perrin, Lee Memorial's assistant director of risk management and safety.
"Now that nurses are getting older-and patients are getting heavier-all these things are coming together and we needed to address that," she said. "The older you are, the longer you've done this, the more likely you are to suffer a significant injury."
Faced with nationwide nursing shortages from this wave of baby boomers-within 16 years, there will be at least 400,000 fewer nurses available, studies show-hospitals want to make sure their most experienced nurses stay on board, and that means keeping them happy and safe.
Southwest Regional and Gulf Coast already have in place ergonomic patient-lifting equipment in its stroke departments, where many patients are immobile.
"It is rather expensive, but it's worth it," said Susan Griffin, chief nursing officer. "It does save on back injuries, which is kind of a No. 1 problem. We work really hard to make sure we appreciate all our nursing staff."
The HCA system also created teams that rotate among departments to interview staff about issues that impact their or their patient's safety, she said.
When the American Nurses Association's attempt to get Congress to adopt a national safety standard for nurses failed in 2001, the organization took an official position on patient handling last year.
It doesn't want nurses lifting, transferring and repositioning patients without assistive equipment.
In fact, at least 60 percent of nurses fear a disabling back injury and 88 percent of them said health and safety concerns influence their decision to continue working in the field, according to ANA's 2001 survey.
"Oh, yeah, I have felt the pain," laughed certified nursing assistant Pat Robinson, 59, massaging her shoulder and neck muscles. Robinson, who works at Cape Coral Hospital, often is called to help lift patients using traditional methods of balancing sheets, boards and limbs.
"Your arm starts to ache, after a while you get a lot of wear and tear," she said. "I think the new equipment is great. Anything to help this old arm."
By 2010, 40 percent of nurses will be 50 or older and the traditional way of lifting-"proper body mechanics"-aren't cutting it, said Butch de Castro, ANA senior staff specialist.
"You're losing your most experienced nurses in the process of injuring them," he said. "You're seeing older nurses having to leave because they can't perform those patient handling duties. It's just physically difficult to do that for an older nurse."
The specialized equipment includes ergonomic, motorized patient-lifting machines and other assistive devices that use the latest technology-such as parachute material for ease of sliding-to move patients from beds to wheeled cots, chairs and toilets.
For patients, this means less stress and strain on their bodies, less chance of accidents from falling or skin tears and, nurses agree, less embarrassment.
"When you lift with the sling, patients feel more secure, more comfortable and more dignified," Perrin said. "Our focus is not just employee safety, but patient safety."
Maricel Banbury's patient last week weighed more than 180 pounds and he needed to be moved from a gurney to his hospital bed.
Banbury, 45, a medical and surgical nurse at Cape Coral Hospital's telemetry floor, needed help.
It took five people using a long surfboard-shaped plastic board with grips to safely tug and slide the patient off the stretcher to his bed, no small feat.
"This is our old equipment-the new ones will make it so much easier," Banbury said.
At Lee Memorial, more than two-thirds of its 1,200 bedside nurses are at least age 40, one-third are 50 or older and 8.1 percent are at least 60.
Cape Coral Nurse Suzanne Moody, 63, began nursing in 1961 and remembers when nurses relied on orderlies to maneuver patients.
Despite her option to retire, Moody, who says she's in pretty good shape, has no plans to leave the profession, and Lee Memorial doesn't want to lose her.
"We have to take care of our nurses so we can take care of patients," she said. "It's hard work. It's not that they want to get out of the businesses, but I think we should do everything we can to keep them."
But retaining nurses is only one facet of the solution. Recruiting new nurses is another, and both Lee Memorial and Southwest have produced lucrative educational incentives for nursing students among the area's colleges and universities.
Lee Memorial this year agreed to continue investing in its Edison College cohort program, providing $450,000 over the next five years that opens up 24 new nursing seats in Lee County and 24 in Charlotte County.
The program will provide 120 new nurses over the next five years who, administrators hope, will come work for local hospitals.
Lee Memorial hires about 70 percent of Edison's nursing graduates.
Southwest is funding about $200,000 of that program, as its proportion of need is smaller-the system employs about 350 nurses and assistants. But getting new grads is a priority.
"Over the years, the acuity level of our patients has gotten higher and higher," said Linda Smith, Southwest's director of human resources. "So we raise the level of skill for people who work in support of our RNs. Here, at Southwest, it's an extremely rich program, taking on-the-job training to higher levels than ever before."
Lee Memorial also spends about $200,000 a year in tuition reimbursement to its employees and an additional $150,000 in grants and scholarships
Things are looking up, said Mike Polito, Lee Memorial's work force development planner. About 75 percent of these grant-winning students are entering the nursing field.
"Even though you can see where the problems are, it takes you quite a while in order to fix it because you have to recruit from high schools, the public and colleges," he said. "You're going to see a huge change over the next three to five years."