Report details Vt. nursing shortage (Part I) (Brattleboro Reformer)

By Nicole Orne, Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- While the effects of a shortage of nurses are slightly less in Vermont compared with the rest of the country, the problem is still a real one, and local hospitals are looking for ways to stave it off.

According to a 2007 study on hospital nursing by the Office of Nursing Workforce Research, Planning and Development at the University of Vermont, vacancy rates in the state vary depending on the position, with 12 percent of jobs for nurse anesthetists unfilled, 8 percent of both clinical nurse specialist and licensed practical nurse positions, and 6 percent of registered nurse spots.

Specialty registered nurse positions can take nearly seven months to fill for an operating room spot and more than three months for managerial positions, emergency room positions and intensive care unit positions.

While hospitals have been working hard to keep the shortage from affecting service, the report found that once in a while this is unavoidable.

When asked if the shortage curtailed any planned new technology, 7 percent of Vermont hospitals responded that it had several times a year.

The shortage reduced the number of staffed beds daily for 7 percent of hospitals and monthly for 7 percent. Forty-three percent said it never happened.

More than half also said they experienced decreased patient satisfaction or increased complaints.

Roughly 14 percent responded that the shortage led to overcrowding in the emergency department on a weekly basis.

Half of the Vermont hospitals said they had delayed or diverted admissions at least several times each year. Still, though, none of the hospitals reported having to shorten lengths of stay, only 7 percent said they ever experienced reduced service hours, increased wait time for surgery or delayed hospital discharges.

A total of 21 percent of hospitals in Vermont reported that staff was required to work overtime on a monthly or weekly basis.

Despite efforts at hospitals, the report found that the shortage decreased staff satisfaction daily or weekly for 14 percent of hospitals, monthly for 21 percent and at least several times a year for 36 percent.

With the baby boomer generation beginning to retire, the age of the average nurse has become part of the problem. The vast majority, 80 percent in 2007, of registered nurses in Vermont are over the age of 40.

This, plus fewer nurses starting in the career, could mean a shortage of more than 1 million registered nurses nationwide by the end of the decade, the American Nurses Association reported.

Also, as more baby boomers age, more will require medical care. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that there will be roughly half a million more empty registered nurse positions nationwide in 2016 than there were in 2006.

Mary Urquhart, the vice president of Patient Care Services at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, said young Vermonters leaving the state added to this problem.

The average age of someone entering the nursing field is about 33, she said. "We're seeing a lot of people entering nursing as a second profession. It has a lot to do with, during their adulthood, they've had some experience with health care in terms of taking care of a parent or someone in their family. It's being a part of that health care system."

Also, Urquhart explained, the nursing profession is still largely female-dominated, but fewer women are choosing that path. "In today's world, women have a lot more options," she said. "Also, it's a profession that's 24/7 and when you have other options out there and those don't mean working nights and weekends ..."