Greg Alexander

School and hospitals team up to battle nursing shortage

Baltimore Sun, August 2003

“We need to focus our collective attention — both academic faculty and health care institutions — on the nursing shortage crisis; otherwise, we face a public health disaster,” says Barbara Heller, Ed.D., R.N., executive director of the University of Maryland Center for Health Workforce Development. Strong words indeed, but the statistics support Heller’s statement.

According to a report by the University of Maryland Baltimore, Maryland has a current shortage of 3,000 registered nurses, and it’s projected that by 2012, that number will rise to 17,000. The state’s vacancy rate for RNs is higher than the national average, and fewer students are graduating from Maryland colleges with degrees in nursing than years past. The number of graduates with associate’s degrees in nursing fell almost 30 percent from 1994 to 2001, while the number of bachelor’s degrees fell almost 18 percent from 1998 to 2001. Meanwhile, the demand for nurses has increased based on a significant rise of the number of people aged 65 and older.

So what can be done to address this growing problem that affects not only Maryland but also the nation?

“The majority of nursing students receive financial support, whether it’s from federal and state sources or through their employers,” says Heller, who notes that a 2000 survey conducted by the Maryland Colleagues in Caring found that over 40 percent of students say that financial assistance was an important factor on whether they could stay in nursing school. “A large number of nursing students are seeking financial support because they are raising a family or are young with little savings. Scholarships and other financial incentive programs are an element that we always need to be concerned about.”

The University of Maryland, along with other area schools and health care institutions has taken this charge to develop innovative programs to assist those interested in a career in nursing.

In addition to the Nurse Reinvestment Act that allotted $20 million for nursing scholarships, training and faculty development, schools and hospitals are partnering to provide further funds. The Clinical Scholars Program, developed by the University of Maryland School of Nursing that Heller served as dean for 12 years, established partnerships with area hospitals to provide tuition assistance for nursing students in their final year of a bachelor’s program. In return, students take a capstone clinical emphasis course at one of the participating hospitals and agree to work at that hospital upon graduation.

For example, Heller says that is a student is awarded $2,500 toward tuition assistance, he or she will generally work for the sponsoring hospital for one year, while $5,000 equals a two-year commitment. Heller adds the hospitals benefit, too, as these nurses can seamlessly transition into their new jobs; therefore, hospitals cut down on orientation costs. “The students are already familiar with their units, which makes for an easy transition,” says Heller. “Recruitment costs are decreased, and the hospital gets quality, experienced nurses.”

In addition to financially assisting those already interested in nursing, incentive programs also aim to attract individuals to the nursing field. “We aim to encourage nursing as a career option. Due to the federal and state government’s response to the crisis and through the efforts of hospitals and schools, there are many scholarships, grants and other incentive programs available,” says Monica Nelson, coordinator for the Center of Nursing Excellence at Mercy Medical Center. Nelson adds that she works as a mentor at the high school and college level to encourage nursing as a profession.

Nelson says that in addition to tuition reimbursement programs for current health care staff at Mercy, there are also options for nursing students as well as nurses. For nursing students at an approved school of nursing with an acceptable grade point average and at an acceptable stage in their programs, a $3,000 stipend may be awarded in exchange for a two-year commitment to Mercy.

Additionally, Mercy has a student loan repayment program for those nurses who have already passed their board exams where $3,000 is paid to the financial institution administering the loan.

“Nursing is a great fit for anyone. You can work full time and still go to school as Mercy is very flexible and will work with those in nursing school,” says Nelson. “We get a lot of second-career individuals investigating the nursing field, especially those who come from a service-oriented career.”

Bill Mannion is a perfect example of someone who loves to help others who decided to seek a career in nursing. Mannion earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Loyola College and a master’s degree from St. Mary’s Seminary before entering the priesthood. Later, he was working in triage with the Baltimore Department of Social Services when Creative Alternatives, a grant-funded comprehensive case management organization overseen by the Baltimore Mental Health System and affiliated with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, brought in a homeless person.

“I was so impressed by the excellent care Creative Alternatives provided the homeless that it sparked my interest in nursing,” says Mannion who will earn his associate’s degree in nursing from Community College of Baltimore County, Essex.

In exchange for three 10-hour shifts per week at Creative Alternatives and a commitment to work at Creative Alternatives after graduation, Johns Hopkins Bayview pays Mannion’s tuition at Essex, as well as books and uniform costs. Mannion says he loves the medical aspect of his job at Creative Alternatives, which provides its mentally ill patients assistance with employment, housing, substance abuse counseling if necessary and transportation to medical appointments.

“Creative Alternatives is great because they are so flexible with my school schedule,” says Mannion, who notes that he hopes to continue his work there for many years. “I work day shifts there while attending the evening/weekend program at Essex. That way I can focus on my schoolwork at school and focus on helping others while at work. If I have a test to study for, Creative Alternatives will rearrange my schedule, and I know this flexibility has definitely helped my grades.”

Mannion has benefited in another way from his experience at Creative Alternatives — he met his future wife there.

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