Software aims to lessen nursing shortage in Calif.

A consortium of not-for-profit charitable and educational organizations in Northern California has developed and is offering to other regions across the country an online computer system to help alleviate the growing shortage of nurses.

The software already has been licensed to organizations in Texas and, most recently, in Florida, while the system was designed to scale up to a national service, according to an official with the program.

"The schools in the (San Francisco) Bay Area said to us that in order to expand their nursing program, they needed to find more clinical placements," said K.T. Waxman, program director for the Berkeley-based Bay Area Nursing Resource Center, which runs the service that matches nursing school students to clinical placements in hospitals and clinics in its nine-county service area. Waxman also serves as program director for the California Institute for Nursing & Health Care, also in Berkeley, which, with the Foundation for California Community Colleges in Sacramento, co-manages the nursing resource center.

"The purpose of our system was to identify untapped capacity for nursing students, which will also help the hospitals recruit new nurses to address the nursing shortage," Waxman said. "We're all about addressing the nursing shortage."

For that problem, the U.S. healthcare industry needs all the help it can get, according to a recent study by David Auerbach, a principal analyst with the Health and Human Resources Division of the Congressional Budget Office. Auerbach and his fellow researchers said in a report published in the January-February issue of the policy journal Health Affairs that the current nursing workforce shortfall is now in its ninth consecutive year, and will triple to a shortage of some 340,000 nurses by the year 2020.

There is one dim ray of sunshine in Auerbach's otherwise gloomy forecast: Researchers have discerned a recent boomlet of people in their 30s signing up for nursing training. The unexpected cohort in the training pipeline has helped reduce the projected 2020 shortage, which, according to Auerbach, was previously pegged at more than 800,000.

The Bay Area Nursing Resource Center's Web-based computer software system helps optimize some 35 nursing education programs in the region by better matching their needs with some 1,400 to 1,500 available clinical training openings at 65 participating hospitals and clinical sites. Called the Centralized Clinical Placement System, it is supported by the Betty Irene Moore Nursing Initiative, a program of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, San Francisco. A California Healthcare Foundation grant helped launch the nursing resource center.

Waxman said that the online matching service enables participating schools to enter in the clinical training experiences their students need while the hospitals and other sites input their clinical placement opportunities, "and then the system matches up the possibilities." From a school official's perspective, "I can see within the system hundreds of possibilities for my students to gain that experience," she said. Still, she said, "The hospital is the driver. The hospital accepts or declines the proposal made by the schools."

"There certainly is competition for the placements, (and) many of our schools have had relationships for 30 years. But in order to expand, our feeling is they had to look beyond what they did in the past. It's just a whole different way."

The system has been battle-tested in the Bay Area for three years. A similar coalition consisting of two groups in Florida, the Palm Healthcare Foundation in Palm Beach County, and in Miami-Dade County, the Nursing Shortage Consortium of South Florida, launched the system about a year ago. A Texas coalition covering 13 counties consisting of a workforce development group, the WorkSource Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, signed up recently.

"The placement cycle occurs twice a year, for the fall and the spring," Waxman said. "Outside of the beta test, we're moving into our fifth cycle. Florida is up and running, moving into their second placement cycle. Texas is just beginning and we're going to be implementing it in other parts of California as well."

The server hosting the service is housed in Sacramento at the Foundation for California Community Colleges and is big enough to accommodate a lot more systems.

"We're doing some software work to make it infinitely scalable," said Kristine Yahn, Waxman's counterpart as executive director of the healthcare program at the foundation. "Once we get 10,000 users across the U.S., it will cost hardly anything for a user."

For now, the consortium is pricing the service based on a recent analysis by a consultant, with a flat fee of $20,000 for a region to set up an individualized Web portal page and the licensing costs. Training is $1,200 per day plus travel expenses. The annual fee for a participating school or hospital is $975.

Areas that are most likely to want the system are where there is a densely populated hub and outlying areas where they have clinical capacity, Yahn said. "What we really need for sustainability is several hundred users."

The center has two other computerized projects to address the nursing shortage: Last year, the Foundation for California Community Colleges was awarded an $8.27 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to launch five regional nursing simulation centers to be shared by the nursing schools and hospitals in the region. A consortium from the schools and clinical training sites is also looking to develop a shared curriculum and sets of simulation scenarios for those centers. In addition, the Centralized Faculty Resource Center, an online service that connects nursing educators with nursing schools, also was developed by the nursing center.

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