The nursing shortage may be like a tsunami with the critical wave yet offshore and area health care professionals seeing a looming problem coming this way.
"We are seeing signs of it, but it is not critical yet on a consistent basis," said Dale Benson, human resources director at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd.
The University of Minnesota reports that there are about 1,700 nursing jobs empty in the state. The problems are not unique to Minnesota. California reports 10 percent of the state's nursing jobs are vacant.
"We don't have problems right now getting registered nurses," Benson said, but he noted other areas such as Minneapolis, Fargo and southern Minnesota have a shortage of registered nurses.
"The only reason we don't have a problem with it is because we have a school right here but that doesn't mean we aren't going to have problems," Benson said. "The average nurse is about 44 years of age. You just look at the demographics and you know we are going to have a problem in the future."
Demographics mean baby boomers are aging and will likely need more health services at a time when there will be fewer younger people entering the work force. Significant concerns about the shortage are expected by 2010.
Already it can be a challenge to staff for vacations and extra shifts.
Benson said having a nursing program at Central Lakes College and a good quality of life in the area helps attract workers, but he noted competition for those graduating students will become tighter as other employees vie for their services.
At St. Joseph's, it has been more difficult to fill licensed practical nurse, respiratory therapy, radiology and surgical technician positions. But the biggest challenges are for technicians in radiology. And position for a pharmacist has been open for nine months. There are 210 registered nurses at St. Joseph's out of 750-800 employees.
Benson said three years ago the hospital never had to advertise for positions but the market has tightened in nearly all positions. Once employees come to the area, they tend to stay, Benson said.
Anticipating problems will become more acute before getting any better, the hospital is looking at working with Central Lakes College to establish scholarships in medical fields. And as students graduate, the hospital is considering payment of tuition if students go to work at the hospital.
Lois Fielding, nursing program coordinator at CLC, said the school has 60 practical nursing students now and 35 registered nursing students. Another 10 student spots will be added next year. The nursing program began in 1968.
Nursing assistant classes are offered three times each semester and a home health aide class is offered in December and in May. The college also offers a site for licensure exams. Fielding said it looks like St. Cloud State University will be adding a four-year nursing program soon.
"Our area has not suffered a drop in applications at all," Fielding said. "So I think there is still interest in students going into nursing. ... We've been told for years now that (the shortage has) been coming and it's only going to get worse."
Dr. Frank Cerra, senior vice president for health services at the University of Minnesota's Academic Health Center, said the nursing shortage is real.
"Everybody is convinced this is far worse than anyone has seen," Cerra said.
Cerra said contributing factors are the aging nurse population, education systems that have not kept pace with needs and nurses who are tired of acute care and finding they can get more pay and fewer hours in nonacute care jobs.
A licensed practical nurse can start at $11.50 per hour at a hospital and may earn a little less at a clinic or in a nursing home. Training typically takes about a year. Registered nurses can earn between $17.50 and $18 to start in a hospital setting after two years of school.
Medical technicians may earn about $15, but are likely to earn more if in specialties such as MRIs.
Theresa Sullivan, organizational support administrator at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center, said the hospital has open positions in a staff of about 450.
Registered nurses number between 80 and 90. She said some of the openings can be attributed to the hospital's growth. But the hospital is also thinking ahead about the shortage.
"Looking forward to the future is getting people educated and interested in health care careers," Sullivan said of work in an effort to avert a critical problem. "We are not there, but we don't want to be there either."
Another piece of the puzzle is that nurses who train and educate students are also in short supply. The Academic Health Center expects to have an action plan in six months and wants to attract students to health care from elementary and high school grades.
"It pays to prepare," Sullivan said, noting much of the discussion is a numbers game looking at the baby boom generation. "How do you take care of all those people who are starting to use the health care system more than before when the generation behind them is smaller?"
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