For about 20 years, the College of Nursing and Health Science at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., has had an accelerated nursing program for people with college degrees looking for a career in healthcare. But through most of the 1990s interest in the program waned to nothing.
Then inquiries started to increase, and combined with the acute shortage of nurses, college officials realized in the summer of 2001 that they needed to restart the accelerated program. When they started admitting students for the fall 2002 session, "demand just went through the roof," says P.J. Maddox, the college's dean.
For the healthcare industry, struggling to cure a worsening shortage of nurses, such anecdotes, though few and far between, are heartening. An ad hoc coalition of nursing organizations, hospital associations and governments is trying to do what it can to turn the tide of nurses leaving the profession.
Whether through recruitment efforts, trying to improve work conditions or trying to get more funds for nursing programs, the effort is beginning to show some effects, though the shortage remains severe.
The effort received some long-awaited federal help in March when the Nurse Reinvestment Act received about $20 million from Congress as part of the 2003 omnibus appropriations bill, seven months after President Bush signed it into law (March 31, p. 12). The law is supposed to provide funding for new nursing programs to attract more people into the profession while strengthening existing programs.
While those in the nursing field are happy to see money finally coming in, everyone acknowledges the figure barely scratches the surface of the problem. The American Nurses Association lobbied for $250 million in start-up funds. Bush's 2004 budget allocates $7 million for the initiative.
On the state level as well, hospitals are told that budget constraints make it impossible to provide additional funding for nursing programs.
"So many states, their budgets are completely strapped," says Kevin Bloye, director of public relations for the Georgia Hospital Association, which has unsuccessfully lobbied for more nursing dollars from its state legislators.
In lieu of significant federal and state actions, the hospital industry also is taking steps at priming the pump, trying to get more people interested in nursing.
In fall 2002 the Maryland Hospital Association recruited and trained 100 nurse speakers to talk to high school students about becoming nurses. It also launched a pilot program to survey and track nurses to see how better to retain nurses at hospitals. It's still too early to determine the effectiveness of the program, says Nancy Fiedler, a spokeswoman for the association, but another training session is scheduled for the summer.
In Georgia, the hospital association last fall spent about $1 million for a television and radio advertising campaign aimed at getting more people interested in healthcare careers. The second phase of the campaign is tentatively scheduled for later this summer.
In Minnesota, the state hospital association is taking a broad-brushed approach to the problem, creating a Web site for those seeking nursing jobs and partnering with the Minnesota Organization of Leaders in Nursing to explore ways to improve the work experience of nurses to keep them in the profession longer.
It also is working with nursing programs throughout Minnesota's college system to recruit more students. Part of that effort included persuading hospitals to allow nurses to take time off to teach. Bruce Rueben, president of the Minnesota Hospital Association, says that has not been a problem: "The hospitals understand they're creating a supply of nurses."
The most effective promotional campaign, however, may be the one created a year ago by Johnson & Johnson, called the Campaign for Nursing's Future, which so far has cost more than $25 million. The effort includes media advertising, recruitment in high schools, student scholarships and faculty fellowships.
In April, in celebration of the campaign's first anniversary, James Lenehan, Johnson & Johnson's president and vice chairman, said enrollment in baccalaureate nursing programs had increased by more than 8% from 2001 to 2002.
Indeed, nursing schools across the country are reporting they have to turn away qualified applicants simply because they don't have the resources to train the students. In Minnesota, Rueben says, there are about 1,000 students on the waiting lists of the 21 nursing programs throughout the state's colleges and universities.
At George Mason, a program that had no students for the previous eight years, 100 applicants applied for 40 spaces for the school year that began in the fall of 2002. For the upcoming fall semester, the college received 250 applicants for 70 spaces.
"We have many, many more slots than physical capacity or staff to meet the demand," Maddox says.
Hugh Brooks entered George Mason's accelerated program after working for several years in the computer industry, first as a technology consultant and then as a Web site developer.
After Sept. 11, 2001, Brooks, 36, decided he wanted to return to a career helping people in need. His wife was a nursing student at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., at the time.
"I would never have thought of nursing if I hadn't seen it through her eyes," he says.
With more students coming into the pipeline, Maddox says his new worry is having the faculty to fill the need.
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