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Vacancy rate is more than 9 percent, 1.2 percent above national average

Nurses at a premium in Mississippi

Nurses across Mississippi are facing an uncertain future, and leaders in the state’s nursing schools and professional associations are hoping the news gets better before it gets worse.

“We are going to be short a half-million nurses nationwide by 2011,” says Dr. Ricki R. Garrett, executive director of the Mississippi Nurses Association (MNA). The nursing shortage, like the equally daunting teacher shortage, has plagued the Magnolia State for years. “It will increase significantly over the next few years as the baby boomers keep aging and more nurses reach retirement age.” Garrett says. The average age for a nurse is 48 while the average age for a nursing faculty member is 58.

A 2008 study by the Mississippi Office of Nursing Workforce highlighted the increasing demand for registered nurses (RN) in Mississippi hospitals. Responding hospital employers reported a vacancy rate of 9.3 percent, up from the previous year’s 7.9 percent and 1.2 percent higher than the national average.

This problem trickles down to the patient in the exam room. “Most hospital RN’s report major problems with having enough time to maintain patient safety, detect complications early and collaborate with team members,” reported Dr. Peter Buerhaus for the Nursing Economics journal.

One of the biggest reasons for the shortage is rooted in the nursing schools themselves. “We’re not able to produce the nurses we need because we don’t have the faculty,” Garrett says, “Nurses can make more money working clinically than through teaching.” The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nursing instructors make a national average of $46,000 annually while RN’s working in hospitals and clinics earn $55,000 a year. Garrett says that the MNA has successfully lobbied the state Legislature for two recent pay raises and continues efforts to recruit and maintain faculty of Mississippi’s 21 nursing schools. “I get calls on a weekly basis from other states trying to model our efforts,” Garrett says.

Help for Mississippi nurses and nursing instructors could be coming from Washington as part of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reports that $200 million of the economic stimulus money will be invested to train primary care nurses, physicians and doctors while more than $2.9 billion will be available in formula and competitive grants for worker training and placement in the healthcare sector.

Dr. Mary Jean Padgett, dean of the School of Nursing at Mississippi College in Clinton, says 140 students are enrolled this year in her upper two-year program. Padgett says that the industry appears to be coping better with the shortage. “People are going back to work and some who were out of the workforce are returning,” she says. “Nursing has changed by becoming more community oriented. Thirty-five years ago, nurses just had the option of a hospital or a doctors office.”

Padgett says that there are more employment opportunities today for nurses everywhere from sick baby daycares to insurance agencies. “There are fitness programs run by nurses, there is the home health industry, hospices have nurses… you can’t just put all the sick people in a hospital anymore, so we teach our students that nurses will need to go to where the people live to meet their care needs.” Padgett says. She adds that there is big push to bring back school nurses so they can promote healthy lifestyles for children and combat growing problems like childhood obesity.

Dr. Garrett says that nursing is a competitive field beginning at the educational level, and Dr. Padgett says space is often limited in the schools due to the declining number of instructors. “Students thinking about going into nursing as a profession need to be taking a lot of math and science courses.” Garrett says. “We turn away thousands of potential students, and many who enter don’t finish because of the difficulty, lack of finances or marriage and family decisions.”

Hinds Community College is one of 14 community and junior colleges in Mississippi that offer nursing programs. Dr. Libby Mahaffey, dean of the Nursing and Allied Health program at HCC, says they still have a very healthy applicant pool and are working to make further improvements to their programs.

“Last year, we admitted paramedics and respiratory therapists to our RN night and weekend program and will see our first graduates in May,” Mahaffey says. “Many of them maintain dual licensure making them more marketable.” Mahaffey says that Hinds responded early to the nursing shortage. “The Delta region is probably still seeing the highest number of nursing shortages,” she says.”

Mahaffey says her department is preparing its one-year licensed practical nursing (LPN) program for a night and weekend track beginning in 2010.

Contact MBJ staff writer Stephen McDill at stephen.mcdill@msbusiness.com.

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