INDIANAPOLIS -- Hospitals and other health care employers are offering nurses signing bonuses, child care and even maid or lawn service as they confront a shortage that appears to be going nationwide.
If nursing does not attract more people in the next decade, hospitals face the prospect of shrinking staffs just as the estimated 78 million baby boomers begin to reach the age of 65.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say the shortage appears limited for now to isolated pockets across the country. However, federal data were last collected in 1996, and recruiters, universities and nursing groups say the shortage has spread since then.
"Six months ago, I would have said yes, it was geographically limited. Now, I'd say it's not," said Pam Thompson, executive director of the American Organization of Nurse Executives, whose 4,000 members include recruiters, managers and nursing supervisors.
"Our members are having difficulty in filling positions, especially in the more specific areas like critical care, labor and delivery and the emergency room," she said.
Hospitals are now offering signing bonuses as high as $5,000, tuition and student-loan reimbursement programs, child care subsidies, flexible hours and other enticements.
Community Hospitals of Indianapolis, faced with the prospect of an expanding cardiovascular unit, offered experienced nurses maid or lawn service in exchange for signing on. The perks helped round up 12 hires.
Cheryl Peterson of the American Nurses Association said managed care brought on part of the shortage as some hospitals reduced nursing staffs to cut costs.
"They disenfranchised a lot of nurses," said Peterson, a senior policy analyst with the 200,000-member union.
Meanwhile, nursing schools are turning out fewer graduates. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing reports enrollment in bachelor's programs has declined for five consecutive years. Enrollments fell nearly 5 percent last fall from the previous year.
Kimberly Grayson isn't surprised. The 24-year-old is set to graduate from Indiana University's School of Nursing in August.
There were too many applicants in 1994 and she couldn't get into the program. But two years later she was encouraged to try again.
She recently chose among three job offers, including one with a $4,000 signing bonus. She passed that job up for one in her preferred area, pediatrics, with better hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. She will earn $15.40 per hour, or about $600 per week, to start.
However, with fewer younger nurses coming up through the ranks -- less than 10 percent today are under 30 years old -- the nation's pool of nurses is expected to shrink in the next decade.
Federal officials and nursing groups agree the nation will experience an acute shortage of registered nurses starting in 2010, when today's nurses, who average 44 years of age, start to retire.
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