Glenwood Springs area hospitals not suffering much from nursing shortage

By John Gardner

GARFIELD COUNTY — The nursing shortage around the nation is a very real thing, according to Daniel Biggs, administrative director of human resources at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.

But the hospitals in Garfield County are better off than many.

“I believe that the nursing shortage is a matter of choice to an extent,� Biggs said. “There will always be nurses who want to work at a great place. My mission is to make (VVH) a great place to work.�

Colorado’s nursing shortage is twice the national average, according to the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published in November 2007 in the monthly Labor Review, more than 1 million new and replacement nurses will be needed by the year 2016.

Biggs said that he knows the shortage is real in more metropolitan areas like Denver or Phoenix, Ariz., but at the moment, it’s not as prevalent in the valley, yet. But that doesn’t mean the hospitals here are immune to the problem.

“Overall, I’d have to say no,� Biggs said. “Individual departments struggle at different times, but there isn’t a shortage of nurses at Valley View.�

The hospital currently employs 225 registered nurses (RNs) that work at the facility, and they still have some open positions.

But Biggs said it’s the specialty areas like the Critical Care Unit that are currently feeling the shortage, because the position requires a more specialized nurse.

“It’s harder to staff critical care right now because of the nature of the patients,� Biggs said. “The nurses need quite a bit of experience in that environment.�

Further downvalley, at Grand River Medical Center in Rifle, director of clinical services Mary DesOrmau said the hospital has had to create some alternative incentives to attract nurses. DesOrmau said the hospital offers a $10,000 signing bonus for certain night shift positions with a two-year agreement to attract nurses, that’s proven effective in recruiting in the past two years.

“We currently don’t have any open positions,� DesOrmau said. “But we do still have three or four travel staff, and that is how you gauge if you have a shortage or not.�

GRHD and Valley View utilize a program called Nurse Link that provides temporary nurses for facilities in need for short- and long-term openings.

But the real problem in the valley and across the nation, according to Biggs and DesOrmau, isn’t the shortage of nurses, but the shortage of nursing educators. Maureen Nuckols, interim director of nursing at Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley Campus, couldn’t agree more.

Nuckols said that CMC has one of the highest test rates for RNs in the state, but the campus has only eight full-time nursing instructors and several more adjunct professors. The problem being that they are in the same boat as the rest of the profession with a shortage of nursing faculty.

“The average age of faculty is between 50 and 57 years old,� Nuckols said. “We are getting older, and there aren’t people behind us to replace us.�

The Council on Physician and Nurse Supply, an independent group of health care leaders based at the University of Pennsylvania, released a statement in March 2008 that said a 30 percent increase in annual graduating nurses is needed to meet the current demand. The good news from Nuckols is that in the past three years, admissions at CMC’s nursing program have tripled. But the number of faculty hasn’t, and that means larger classes and more work for professors.

“Instead of 24 students, I have 55 students in a class,� Nuckols said. “So now I have 55 tests to grade, doubling my work load.�

Two main factors contribute to the shortage of nursing educators, in Nuckols’ opinion. The first is the increased need and the aging demographic of educators, and the disparity between salaries of educational and clinical positions.

A starting salary for a first-year RN, according to Biggs, is anywhere from $22 to $24 per hour ($44,000 — $48,000 annually). The instructor position for CMC pays between $59,000 and $70,000 annually, depending on experience. At first glance, it may appear that the instructional position is the way to go, but that isn’t exactly the case, according to Nuckols.

A nursing educator has to not only have experience in the profession, but also needs to possess a master’s degree in nursing as well. The catch is that a nurse who is qualified for teaching could make significantly more by being a clinical nurse.

“There is a big pay drop,� Nuckols said. “By the time you get an MA in nursing you could get a better paying job in the clinical setting than you could in the education field.�

Together, both hospitals and CMC in Garfield County are working to devise a system where the hospitals and college work together in certain aspects of the educational process; however nothing is confirmed at this point.

“The hope for the future is to have a creative collaboration with the hospitals for part of clinical instruction,� Nuckols said “And the older teachers need to mentor younger nurses into entering the educational field.�

It may take some time to rectify the situation, but at least it’s a start.

Contact John Gardner: 384-9114

Post Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

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