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  October 21, 2002

Health Center, Nursing School Join
Forces to Address Nursing Shortage
By Maureen McGuire

Jeanne Lattanzio has two words for young men and women who are interested in health careers: "consider nursing."

"Nursing is a wonderful profession," says Lattanzio, associate vice president of operations and director of nursing at the Health Center. "When you look at what makes a hospital tick, it's the nursing unit that takes care of patients, and the person managing each unit that makes the hospital function. Nurses are critical to the life of every hospital."

Yet national statistics suggest that this message isn't reaching enough people. Fewer people are choosing the nursing profession and hospitals across the country are facing a prolonged, serious nursing shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2010, the nation will have a deficit of more than 1 million nurses. The statistics for Connecticut are similarly discouraging: the labor bureau predicts the state will have 24 percent fewer nurses than it needs by 2005.

In light of this, Lattanzio and others at the Health Center are forging both short-term and long-term strategies to continue to attract and retain a highly skilled nursing force.

"There are many factors behind the nursing shortage," Lattanzio explains. "Unlike a generation or two ago, young women with an aptitude for sciences now have a multitude of career opportunities to choose from. Many of the other career choices today involve less stressful and less strenuous work than bedside nursing. Generally speaking, a position with a managed-care company or a pharmaceutical sales job is less physically demanding than nursing."

As new career options grew for women over the past few decades, and fewer women chose to go into nursing, another shortage began to emerge. Now there are fewer professors in nursing schools across the country. "Our faculty is stretched thin," says Laura Dzurec, dean of the UConn School of Nursing.

"All of these factors point to the fact that the nursing shortage won't be reversed overnight. Instead, we have to approach the problem from many different angles," says Lynn Stockwell, a nurse in the Health Center's human resources department, who is focused on maintaining a steady pool of skilled nurses at the Health Center.

Some of the short-terms step the Health Center is taking include:

  • fast-tracking the application process for nurses. For example, if a nurse walks into Human Resources to inquire about job openings, he or she will probably be interviewed on the same day;

  • offering bonuses for highly skilled nurses who join the staff. Bonuses are given after the nurses complete their probationary period;

  • offering bonuses for nurses who take permanent night-shift positions;

  • when necessary, using temporary nurses to fill gaps in staffing levels.

Long-term approaches include working with the Connecticut Hospital Association to reach out to middle school and high school students and guidance counselors and educate them about the value of a career in nursing. The UConn School of Nursing is also engaged at this level.

"Many young people don't really understand what nursing is all about. It's important to reach students even before they start high school," Dzurec says. The School of Nursing is working with the other schools that make up the University's Division of Health and Human Development, and with the Nursing Career Center of Connecticut to reach out to students across the state with information about health careers.

Once students begin their nursing education at UConn, the Health Center is eager to have them spend some of their clinical rotations at the John Dempsey Hospital.

Stockwell says the Health Center values its close relationship with the Storrs program. "Once nursing students get a sense of the Health Center's work environment, they often choose to start their careers here," she says.

She says efforts are also underway to make it easier for existing Health Center employees to receive tuition reimbursement and other incentives to complete nursing education programs.

"This shortage won't turn around until more people go into nursing and more training options become available," Stockwell adds.

Earlier this year, President Bush signed the Nurse Reinvestment Act that authorizes a variety of grants and scholarships to attract and keep nurses in the field. Hospital organizations and the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Hospitals and Health Care Organizations (JCAHO) have placed strong pressure on Congress and the White House to respond to the crisis.

"Nearly every person's health care experience involves the contribution of a registered nurse," reads the opening statement of a white paper on the nursing shortage, released in the summer by the JCAHO. "Birth and death, and all the various forms of care in between, are attended by the knowledge, support and comfort of nurses."

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