August 27, 2009
Turnover, aging population contribute to critical shortage of registered nurses
Special to NWjobs
It's going to take a lot more than a simple shot in the arm.
With growing demands for qualified health care professionals needed to staff hospitals, clinics, schools and other settings in the Puget Sound region, the treatment plan is complex and long-term.
As of last August, registered nurses were the highest-demand occupation in King County and across the state, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department.
Nearly one in five of current job vacancies statewide is in health care, according to the department’s most recent employment report.
Details from the spring 2008 Washington Job Vacancy Survey report show more than 16,000 of nearly 74,744 unfilled jobs here is health care -elated. The most significant: 4,312 openings languishing for registered nurses.
While this is encouraging for hiring candidates eager to enter or advance in the industry, it’s troubling news for patients and health care administrators.
Several studies show that Washington will suffer a projected a shortage of 8,800 nurses by 2010 -- and a 17,000 shortfall by 2015. More than half of this demand is expected to be for graduate-level nurses, according to the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis in the Bureau of Health Professions, Health Resources Services Administration.
While the pain will be felt statewide, it’s likely that King County will be hardest hit; 41 percent of all job vacancies are concentrated here.
But in a twist that may surprise many patients, the nursing shortage is “almost exclusively due to turnover” -- not to job expansion, the state job vacancy survey reports.
Ask almost any health care hiring expert in the greater Seattle area, and they’ll agree: Recovering from this shortage and others in health and dental offices will take large infusions of education and new students entering the field.
But meeting the region’s health care hiring needs isn’t a simple classroom-to-operating room route. Consider these factors and trends to see how they shape health care hiring, the workplace and patient care.
The first of the U.S. baby boomers began turning 60 in 2006. As growing waves of aging patients hit their retirement years, look for more demand on the health care system. Nationwide, 40 million people will be 65 or older within two years. U.S. Census Bureau forecasts show 20 percent of the country’s population will be seniors by 2030.
That means a wave of more patients is on the horizon.
At Evergreen Healthcare in Kirkland, for example, Allison Altizer and her team of human resources experts look for the top people to fill a variety of employment openings with care for seniors in mind.
Increasingly, hospitals that offer a variety of services will follow this lead. Evergreen Healthcare’s senior health classes and screenings for those 55 or older cover nutrition, exercise, chronic conditions, safety and more, so health advocates are needed in all these areas.
Evergreen also offers one of the region’s top hospice facilities for compassionate end-of-life care.
Hit the books
Filling these positions means grooming more nurses and health experts.
At least 2,500 nursing students need to graduate in 2010 -- with an increase of 400 graduates each year after that for several years just to catch up, according to the University of Washington Center for Workforce Studies.
Valley Medical Center, meanwhile, offers ambitious plans to meet its staffing goals. Barbara Mitchell, Valley Medical’s senior vice president for human resources and marketing, points to programs that work to match eager entry-level hiring candidates with local colleges and health care unions to secure scholarships and training funds.
The hospital is also ready to advance its employees’ existing skills.
Health care professionals can learn on-the-job enhancement and specialties through residencies that focus on specialties, including emergency services, operating room and surgical areas. “That way we can grown our own,” says Mitchell.
Nursing residences vary from three months to a year, and “allow nurses to get deeper into their personal professional interests.”
It’s one of several reasons Valley Medical Center has been selected by Washington CEO magazine for six consecutive years as one of the top 100 Best Companies to Work For in Washington state.
In Eastern Washington, Washington State University’s new Intercollegiate College of Nursing Building in Spokane was dedicated in May 2009.
This new Riverpoint College of Nursing will benefit students at Eastern Washington and Gonzaga universities and Whitworth College. It will also provide distance-learning classes in Pullman, Tri-Cities, Vancouver, Yakima, Walla Walla and Wenatchee.
As medical diagnostic and treatment equipment gets more sophisticated, so do its specialists. Imaging careers, for example, have changed dramatically in the last decade, attests Mitchell.
“Some of this technology didn’t even exist 15 years ago,” the Valley Medical Center administrator says. “Now a lot of schools are developing programs that specialize in various imaging programs.”
Advanced equipment that can diagnose illnesses, improve health and even cure diseases is in even greater demand. So are the experts who can operate CT scans, MRI equipment, ultra-sound machines and other precision imaging devices.
The same thing applies to nursing and other specialized patient-care positions.
Just look at Virginia Mason Medical Center. The Northwest’s oldest and largest diabetes treatment facility, it is home to Benaroya Diabetes Center, a world leader in research and treatment.
Diabetic patients can also find care at Virginia Mason clinics in Bellevue, Issaquah, Kirkland and Winslow. On top of that, videoconferencing programs reach patients at Virginia Mason facilities in Lynnwood, Issaquah and Federal Way.
“What we try to share with people is that health care is a personal career where you really do make a difference,” says Mitchell. “People who work in health care recognize that it offers a stable career path -- an uplifting career path where you can offer others compassionate care and have a sense of mission.”
This article was originally published in August 2008.
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