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Serious nurse shortage could hit Mississippi facilities

While Mississippi isn’t at a critical stage with a shortage of nurses, there are concerns about increasing difficulties recruiting nurses and fears of a domino effect from cutbacks in higher education that could end up reducing the number of new nurses trained in the state.

“Although the nursing shortage in Mississippi has not reached the severity experienced in other regions of the country, we have heightened concerns that a critical shortage may be looming in the future,” said Marcella L. McKay, president/CEO of the Mississippi Hospital Association’s Health, Research & Education Foundation Inc.

“Mississippi Hospital Association hospitals in Mississippi are reporting increasing vacancy rates and difficulty recruiting experienced nurses, particularly to specialty areas such as labor and delivery, critical care, operating rooms and emergency rooms.”

McKay said decreased numbers of qualified students entering nursing programs combined with an increase in the number of hospital-based nurses approaching retirement means hospitals are gravely concerned about having enough experienced health care professionals to provide front-line care.

“Recruiters and hospitals feel there are never enough nurses to fill all the slots they have open,” said Ellen Poole, human resource specialist with Baptist Medical Center in Jackson. “When there is a shortage, it makes it harder on the other nurses.”

Gloria Coxwell, director of the division of associate degree nursing, Hinds Community College District, said there is concern about a decline in the number of applicants to the nursing program.

“There are so many different fields open to young people today, particularly in technology, that are attracting a lot of young people,” Coxwell said. “I think there is a lot of negative publicity about health cares such as criticisms of HMOs that may have turned some people off to nursing. We need a publicity campaign to let people know there are many, many great jobs available in nursing today, and it is a wonderful career choice for both men and women.”

Dr. Norma Cuellar, RN, assistant dean of the undergraduate program, College of Nursing, University of Southern Mississippi, also said the image of nursing is part of the reason for a decline in the number of applicants to nursing school.

“People see nurses as the handmaiden to the physician, and we do so much more than that,” Cuellar said. “We can work autonomously and do many things in health care that don’t require a physician at our side. When we can promote that image of nursing, I think more people will be attracted to it.”

Cuellar said most people don’t realize the impact of the severe budget cuts in higher education that the state is facing, and that the funding problems could result in fewer nurses being educated in the state.

“There is a domino effect that could occur,” Cuellar said. “As the Legislature cuts the university budgets in the state, faculty positions may be frozen. If we don’t have the faculty, we can’t educate nor graduate as many nurses. I’m not sure people realize the long-term effect this could have on health care. If we graduate less nurses, health care in Mississippi is in danger.”

Cuellar said greater financial support is needed. USM has launched a capital fund-raising campaign in an effort to pick up the state-funding shortfall. Another problem is tuition increases which could prevent some of the lower income students from being able to afford to attend college.

Betty R. Dickson, executive director, Mississippi Nurses Association (MNA), agreed that decreases in higher education are of great concern in the nursing profession.

“MNA is highly concerned about the faculty shortage that exists now,” Dickson said. “Many Mississippi nursing faculty have not received pay raises in the last three years and many are opting for early retirement. Additionally, Mississippi salaries continue to fall behind neighboring states and many faculty members are moving across state lines to teach. Currently the average age of faculty is approaching 50. As those educators leave, we will be faced with a shortage of nursing faculty to prepare new nurses for the shrinking workforce.”

Dickson said that unless measures are taken to address the pending shortfall in nurses, difficult times are ahead.

Mississippi’s current problem areas are geographical and discipline specific. Many facilities are experiencing problems in recruiting experienced registered nurses in areas like medical/surgery, labor and delivery/obstetrics, critical care areas, surgery services and emergency rooms.

According to data compiled by the Office of Nursing Workforce:

• The reported overall registered nurse (RN) vacancy rate for 2000 was 5.6%, an increase of 1.3% over last year’s reported vacancy rate. However, some areas of Mississippi are experiencing higher RN vacancy rates in hospitals than others. For example, hospitals in the northwestern section of the state, including Coahoma, DeSoto, Grenada, Panola, Quitman, Tunica, Tate, Tallahatchie and Yalobusha counties, report a vacancy rate of approximately 13%. On average, hospitals in the Delta have higher vacancy rates than in other areas of the state.

• Approximately 45% of the hospital employers indicated they had difficulty recruiting one or more categories of RNs in 2000. Approximately 25% of the responding hospitals indicated they supplement staff with temporary help (agency or temp nurses).

• In addition to hospital recruitment difficulties, approximately 25% of aging and adult services and home health employers responding reported having difficulty recruiting RNs to work in their facilities.

According to the MBN 2000 Annual Report Data, Mississippi’s registered nurses in 2000 totaled 31,064. Of those with active licenses, only 85% (25,429) report actually working in nursing. The number of actively licensed RNs reporting no employment increased from 2,454 to 5,310 from 1999 to 2000, an increase of 116%. The average age of the RN in Mississippi is increasing with the majority in the 40-49 age group (similar to national averages).

MBN reports that vacancy rates and recruitment difficulties are on the rise. More RNs are leaving Mississippi to work in states experiencing severe nursing shortages and schools of nursing are reporting fewer applicants. These trends indicate that Mississippi may be headed for a statewide shortage similar to other states.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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