Healing the Nursing Shortage

By Beacon Staff

Cheryl Richards, Flathead Valley Community College nursing director, almost fell out of her chair when she was told last June the school wanted a Licensed Professional Nursing program up and running by January.

“A new program hadn’t been developed in years, and I had months,” she said.

But Richards pulled the transition off, and FVCC recently graduated its first class of LPN students, allowing seven women to complete their degrees while staying in the Flathead Valley and adding supply to the area’s growing demand for the profession.

“The nursing shortage can mean a lot of things here; if the valley takes the right approach and creates its own RN’s and LPN’s then the valley may never feel it,” said Cheryl Richards, FVCC director of nursing. “But if not, then these big East Coast hospitals are going to be the ones that end up with the nurses because they can pay better, and we’ll be left struggling.”

Richards said the push for the program was the need to “supplement and help the community in supporting health care” in preparation for the nursing shortage.

The nationwide nursing shortage is perhaps the most talked about problem in healthcare. A report from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing predicts there will be a need for more than 1 million new and replacement nurses by 2012. This gap won’t be easy to fill, as the number of baby boomers projected to retire in coming years far outnumbers the number of nursing graduates.

The baby boomer generation also presents a double-edged sword: more nurses retiring at a time when the boomers will be placing an increased burden on healthcare. According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, Montana is projected to be the fifth oldest state in the country by 2025 with almost 25 percent of the population age 65 or older.

Brad Eldridge, the former DLI chief economist in the research and analysis bureau, said the ratio of RN’s to people in Montana is about on par with the national ratio, but the distribution across the state isn’t even and is particularly lacking in rural areas. There are 152 active licenses for LPN’s in Flathead County and 935 RN licenses, according to the Montana Board of Nursing. That seems to put the county somewhere in the middle of nursing supply, with Yellowstone County recording 1,772 RNs and 382 RNs reported in Silverbow County.

Merna Ridenour, clinical educator at Kalispell Medical Regional, and Maura Fields, North Valley Hospital’s Chief Clinical Nurse, said the FVCC program provides a needed local boost to area healthcare — all of the FVCC graduates plan on remaining in the Flathead Valley area to work. Ridenour credited the eight-month program with providing a quality education without a huge commitment of time or money, and Fields was impressed with FVCC’s active response to the community’s needs.

“The college did an excellent job of bringing people in from the valley who hire in this profession and learning what we need, and then turning around and implementing our recommendations,” Fields said. “They’re actually living up to being a community college.”

More people are applying to nursing school and being enrolled according to the AACN, but more qualified applicants are being turned away due to shortages of faculty, clinical sites and funding. U.S. nursing schools turned away 42,866 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2006.

FVCC graduate Peggy Hertlein said she applied to Montana State University’s RN satellite program in Kalispell only to be put on a waiting list for two years and then told she would be placed in Great Falls — not Kalispell — in 2009.

“My GPA was good, but unless you had a 4.0 you pretty much didn’t have a chance,” she said.

Richards said it’s even more difficult to find nursing professors than nurses, making faculty one of the largest constrictions on programs throughout the state. “Because the shortage has hiked up wages you can get a masters and work for a university, but you probably won’t make more than you will as a shift nurse,” she said.

The nursing shortage is good news for some: FVCC’s graduates won’t have any trouble finding work.

“I think everywhere we worked (during clinicals ) we were being offered jobs before we even graduated,” said student Christine Reid. “There’s plenty of opportunity.”

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