Western Maine hospitals seek new ways to combat nursing shortage

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By Matthew Daigle

REGION — Hospital officials in the western Maine area said that they are steeling themselves against a projected nursing shortage by aligning with different universities and organizations to ensure that nurses who apply to hospitals find units that they are comfortable working in.

On Feb. 14, the Nursing Leaders of Maine, the American Nursing Association of Maine and the Maine Nursing Action Coalition announced the results of the 2016 Maine Nursing Forecaster, which looked at the demographics of Maine’s existing nurses, the projected demands for health care services, and the trends in Maine’s nursing education.

The forecast projected that Maine will face a nursing shortage of 3,200 registered nurses by 2025, and that the state’s new worker demographic, made up of people aged from 18 to 24, is expected to decline by nearly 5 percent by 2027.

However, Jill Rollins, director of acute care services at Bridgton Hospital, said that she’s not worried about finding the nurses to fill the positions.

“We have plenty of new, young nurses coming in, and I don’t even mean young as in their age,” Rollins explained. “I mean young as in the experience they have on the job. I don’t worry about finding the bodies to fill positions when older nurses retire.”

She said the problem is that when older nurses leave, “out goes that wisdom and experience.”

“There’s nobody left to train the new nurses, to teach them, groom them, and show them all the things you need to see and experience to become a better nurse,” Rollins said. “That’s the biggest problem I see as a result of the nursing shortage: the watering down of experience, skill, and knowledge.”

Style that suits 

Rob Slattery, vice president of operations for Bridgton and Rumford Hospital, said that he believes the communities served by the Central Maine Healthcare family are “going to be challenged with that shortage.”

“The challenge going forward is having qualified staff coming up through the organization who can replace the nurses reaching retirement age,” Slattery said.

According to the 2016 Maine Nursing Forecaster, in 2015, the median age of Maine nurses was 49, and that 10,984 nurses in Maine are aged 45 or older, while 7,764 nurses are aged 44 and younger.

Those numbers line up with what Becky Hall, director of patient care services at Rumford Hospital, has seen in the units she oversees.

Hall said that of the 92 registered nurses at Rumford Hospital, more than half of them are due to retire or are considering retirement within the next 10 years.

She said that she has nearly 50 nurses who are 50 and older, including 20 who were 60 and older, and just 24 nurses in their 20s and 30s.

Rollins said that her hospital recently had a large turnover of nurses.

“We had a huge number of nurses retire, and we ended up bringing a lot of younger girls in,” Rollins said. “My retired folks are phasing themselves out by working per diem, so the average age of my nurses is much younger compared to some hospitals.”

Both Hall and Rollins said that they have noticed certain positions within the hospitals will go unfilled for longer periods of time, and both suspect it has something to do with younger nurses struggling to find a style of nursing that suits them.

“A lot of younger nurses come in and think they can work Monday through Friday, 7 to 3,” Hall said. “I don’t want to say it’s unrealistic, but nursing is a commitment and people have to figure out how to do the job.”

She added that she’s lost nurses to jobs that follow a “Monday through Friday” work shift.

Patient-centered 

Slattery said that the projected nursing shortage could impact Rumford and Bridgton hospitals’ ability to shift to a patient-centered medical home model.

Hall explained that hospitals have begun to see “more of a trend to home-based care,” where nurses are going directly to a patient’s home to provide care.

“We’re seeing payers taking mobile units and staffing them with a nurse practitioner at the patient’s home, so the patient doesn’t have to come into an office setting,” she said.

Rollins said that eventually, in a patient-centered medical home system, there would be less patients at the hospitals “because the insurance is paying for nurses to go to their home.”

“We’ve seen this movement in other parts of the country, and now, we’re seeing it here within our region,” Slattery said.

Hall said it would be vital for hospitals within the Central Maine Healthcare system to make sure there were enough nurses to work within the medical home system and at the hospital itself.

Preceptorship

A press release by the Nursing Leaders of Maine, the American Nursing Association of Maine and the Maine Nursing Action Coalition stated that in order to fill some of the shortages in the coming years, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and the Northern Maine Community College are “launching a Northern Maine Nursing Education Partnership that will make a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree available to students in Presque Isle.”

State Sen. Amy Volk, R-Cumberland, also proposed passing “Maine Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact Legislation” to make it easier to recruit health care providers who are already licensed as nurses in other states.

As for Rumford and Bridgton hospitals, Hall and Rollins said that they were both fortunate to have a good relationship with the Maine College of Health Professions in Lewiston, one of only three hospital-based colleges in the state.

Rollins said that she and Hall met with Monica Bissell, president of the Maine College of Health Professions, to talk about ways all three hospitals can work together to combat the projected nursing shortage.

Hall said that both she and Rollins are working on starting a preceptorship program where both hospitals seek out the “cream of the crop” at the Maine College of Health Professions and have them shadow an experienced nurse for a week.

“During the last seven weeks before graduating, these students will have a chance to pick which unit they want to work in and then work with an experienced nurse,” Hall said. “Not only are students getting valuable information before they get into the workforce, but they get to figure out if something is the right fit for them.”

Rollins added that the program is about helping students find out if “this is what I want” and finding somewhere they would be happy working.

“If they find someplace they like to work, retention in those units will go up, and we won’t have to worry about nurses jumping from place to place,” she said. “There’s a great symbiotic relationship that happens.”

No worries

Hall reiterated that she and Rollins aren’t worried about the projected nursing shortage since they have always been able to find nurses to fill available positions.

“We really haven’t had trouble recruiting registered nurses to come here, so maybe that’s why we’re not worried about this nursing shortage,” Hall said. “Our focus is on making sure we find nurses who are right for the units, and making sure they’re well-trained.”

Slattery said that despite the forecast projecting the nursing shortage, he said that he’s “confident that we have the right strategy and right plans in place to ensure we’re bringing the right talent into the programs we’re developing.”

“By having that path for nurses to further educate themselves in their specific domains of expertise, we’ll have an appropriate pipeline of highly trained and highly motivated nurses,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Stephens Memorial Hospital and its parent company Maine Health did not respond to repeated attempts to communicate with someone with regard to the nursing shortage forecast.

mdaigle@sunmediagroup.net