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Calhoun Community College nursing student Nicole Smith does a swaddling exercise in the nursing lab with instructor Sybil Roark on Friday.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Calhoun Community College nursing student Nicole Smith does a swaddling exercise in the nursing lab with instructor Sybil Roark on Friday.

National nursing shortage a complex problem
Lack of teachers means qualified applicants are turned away

By Paul Huggins · 340-2395

A rare respiratory disease had worn Connie Stauddy out.

She was ready to give up as doctors approached with life support equipment.

Regina Morgan, however, still had hope.

The intensive care unit nurse persuaded doctors to give her one more chance to get Stauddy breathing on her own.

“She grabbed my hand and started doing breathing exercises with me and would not let me rest,” Stauddy recalled of the intense moment last October at Decatur General Hospital.

Doctors gave Morgan two hours before they would intubate Stauddy. Fifteen minutes before the deadline, the nonstop exercises worked. Stauddy would not need life support.

“After I got better and realized how sick I had been, Regina sat with me and cried with me,” she said.

Stauddy knows the impact that nurses had on her life.

She was one of 10 Daily readers who submitted letters to the newspaper’s special tribute to the profession Sunday.

Just about anybody who has been sick or injured understands the value of a nurse during a time of crisis, said Genell Lee, a Falkville native who serves on the Alabama Board of Nursing. But the profession still suffers from perception problems that translate into dire circumstances for medical care.

Decatur, like the rest of the state and country, is experiencing a nursing shortage that only appears to be widening despite the expansion of nursing education programs.

Perception is one reason. But even overcoming that obstacle still leaves the industry with a bigger problem: lack of space in nursing education programs.

Prospective students tend to think of nursing as manual labor where all they do is what the doctor tells them, Lee said. But like the rest of the world, health care becomes more high-tech every year, and today’s nurses must be computer savvy.

“Some people think nurses just give shots and empty bed pans, when in fact there’s a tremendous amount of thinking and independent judgment that goes into being a nurse,” she said.

The good news for perspective students is the high demand allows new graduates into specialized fields formerly reserved for the most experienced, Lee said.

“There are nurses that go directly from a nursing education program into working in ICU,” she said.

Even better news, nursing wages continue to climb. The median income for a registered nurse in Alabama is about $51,000 and almost $30,000 for licensed practical nurses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the increasing wages are a Catch-22 for the profession.

Even if the industry can lure enough nursing students to fill future demand, there aren’t enough nursing teachers to prepare them. Higher wages in hospitals and clinics make it even harder to get or keep teachers, Lee said.

According to a study by the National League for Nursing, more than half of nursing teachers who plan to leave their jobs within the year cited more money as their top reason for leaving. The study pointed out that wages of a master’s level nurse teacher are “significantly less” than nurse administrators, consultants, supervisors and head nurse practitioners with the same level of education.

Calhoun Community College was one of the rare nursing programs in the state that didn’t have to turn away any qualified applicants this year.

Overall, the state’s 62 nursing programs turned away 4,300 qualified applicants in 2006. That’s about 700 fewer than the number of nurses who said they plan to retire within five years.

“It is frightening,” said Fay Raines, dean of nursing at The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Even though her program has increased its number of students from 266 in 1990 to 834 this year, it still turns away 100 to 200 per year because its program is full.

The school added two faculty positions for this year, but Raines said that’s not nearly enough keep up with demand. The college must look at ways to be more creative to funnel more students into classrooms, Raines said.

Calhoun has 517 students in its nursing program this fall, up from about 300 five years ago, said Natural Science/Health Division Chairman Jimmy Duke. There’s another 500 taking nursing-related courses but not ready to commit to the program or planning to transfer to four-year colleges.

To help meet demand, the department hired one full-time and two part-time teachers for this fall, he said.

Lee said the state Legislature during its recent session boosted the state’s graduate school scholarship program to help encourage nurses to further their education so they can teach.

The program used to provide 15 $3,800-per-year scholarships for a total of $57,000. It will now offer an additional $500,000 and allow graduate level nursing students to receive $10,000 each.

In 2003 the state nursing board started the Center for Nursing to study ways of filling projected shortages.

Lee said mostly what they’ve learned is that the shortage is a complex issue.

They know the baby boomer generation will soon begin retiring, that alone causes a shortage. And because the baby boomers are aging, they will put even more demand on health care.

What they don’t know is exactly how many nurses are needed and what segment of health care has the most critical need, she said.

“You can say we have so many vacancies in hospitals, but nursing takes place in lots more places than hospitals,” Lee said. “We have nurses working for insurance companies reviewing records and we have more school nurses than ever before.

“Ten years ago, we didn’t have the same type of demand as we do now,” Lee said. “In 10 more years, we really don’t know what the demand is going to be.”

Nursing numbers

$66.41 million — Wages earned by nurses in Morgan County based on median income (Decatur General accounts for $12.7 million of that).

$13.5 million — Price tag on 64,609-square-foot Health Science Building at Calhoun Community College to support growing nursing programs.

400,000 — Projected new nurses needed nationally by 2020.

40,951 — Employed nurses in Alabama; 31,346 work in hospitals, 6,654 in nursing homes and 4,686 in doctors’ offices.

3,065 — Qualified Alabama students turned away from associate degree-level nursing programs in 2006 for lack of space.

1,460 — Total nurses in Morgan County: 1,069 registered nurses and 391 licensed practical nurses.

742 — Total nurses in Limestone County: 540 RNs and 202 LPNs.

361 — Total nurses in Lawrence County: 259 RNs and 102 LPNs.

43 — Average age of nurse in Alabama.

38 — Number of human anatomy classes that Calhoun will teach this fall and spring. 90 to 95 percent of participants are nursing students.

10 — Percentage of Calhoun’s 9,000 students enrolled in nursing classes.

2.5 — Minimum grade-point average needed to enter one of the state’s nursing programs.

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