Nurse To NW Michigan, STAT

Nursing Photo 2Nursing shortages have been a national concern for years. But the problem is becoming acute for hospitals and other health care facilities in northwest Michigan.

“They’re just drowning in openings,” said Mary Robinson, the regional nursing programs coordinator at Grand Valley State University’s Kirkhof College of Nursing. Robinson is located in Traverse City.

Registered nurses are in short supply for a variety of reasons. Many are retiring or leaving the profession because of burnout. Nursing schools don’t have the capacity to educate enough nurses to meet demand. Plus, an aging population that requires more services is straining the health care system.

Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, which employs 1,200 registered nurses, is currently looking to fill dozens of nursing slots, said Jim Fischer, Munson’s vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer.

The hospital’s need for nurses will only grow, he said, in part because of a booming retiree population that will require more health care services as they age. Munson also serves as a regional medical center with a level two trauma center and a neonatal intensive care unit.

“Munson needs to grow faster than the overall population growth of the area,” Fischer said.
Exactly how many nurses the area will need in future years is hard to know. Some experts say greater efficiencies in health care and the drive to reduce hospital admissions could ease nurse shortages.

Others say the aging population and the Affordable Care Act, which is providing access to health care to more people, could swell nursing demand. The Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives forecasts that employers in northwest Michigan will need to hire 107 registered nurses a year through 2020. Of those, 57 a year will be new positions. But Munson alone is looking to fill about 50 positions now, Fischer said.

Statewide statistics suggest the need for nurses here could be far greater. Of the 104,351 registered nurses in the state last year, 38 percent were 55 years and older, and 43 percent are expected to stop practicing within 10 years, according to a study by the Michigan Nursing Center.

A statewide survey of 401 Michigan registered nurses by the Michigan Nurses Association in March found the nursing shortage could lead to even greater shortages because of nurses being stressed by increased workloads.

Fifty-five percent of nurses polled said they have “often considered leaving bedside nursing because of short staffing.” The Michigan Nurses Association is a union representing about 11,000 nurses in the state, but none in northwest Michigan.

The association is pushing for passage of the Safe Patient Care Act, a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Larry Inman, R-Williamsburg, which would establish mandatory nurse-to-patient ratios and prohibit mandatory overtime. The Michigan Health & Hospital Association opposes the legislation, saying hospitals should have the flexibility to address individual staffing needs.

Nursing can be a highly rewarding career as nurses play a critical role in restoring patient health and saving lives. Nursing pays well, too. The average wage for a registered nurse in Michigan last year was $67,690, or $32.54 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Northwest Michigan, the average wage was $57,940 or $27.86 an hour. Registered nurses at Munson earn between $24 an hour and $34.97 an hour, Fischer said.

But nursing can be highly stressful, and the path to a nursing degree is rigorous. Registered nurses hold either associate or bachelor degrees. But more hospitals, including Munson, are requiring that nurses obtain bachelor degrees.

“Nursing is hard work,” said Laura Schmidt, director of nursing and allied health at Northwestern Michigan College. “Many times we’ve had students come into our program and say, ‘This is really not what I expected. I didn’t know I’d be making such important decisions about people’s lives.’”

Women have long dominated the nursing profession. But it’s harder to attract young woman into nursing because they have a wider array of career options than they did decades ago, Schmidt said. About 20 percent of the 175 students in NMC’s nursing program are men.
Schmidt said NMC’s program could handle five more students. But putting more students in classroom seats is just part of the problem. Students are faced with a limited number of clinical positions in area hospitals and other health care facilities. Clinical work is required to earn a nursing degree.

A shortage of nursing educators also is plaguing the profession. Nationwide, nearly 70,000 students were turned away from nursing programs in 2014 because of a shortage of nursing faculty, classroom space and clinical opportunities, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

“In order to teach nursing, you need at least a master’s degree,” Schmidt said. “We don’t have many nurses with a master’s in northern Michigan.”

And the demand for nursing education locally is likely to grow because Munson and other hospitals are requiring their nurses who don’t have bachelor degrees to get them within five years of being hired. About half of Munson’s nurses have bachelor’s degrees. Fischer said research shows that hospitals that employ nurses with bachelor’s degrees have better patient outcomes and lower patient mortality rates.

Nursing educators say low tuition reimbursement by hospitals and inflexible work schedules can make it difficult for nurses to boost their education level. Some leave to work in nursing homes and other facilities that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. But Fischer said Munson adjusts nurses’ schedules to allow them to attend class and pays up to $5,000 a year in tuition reimbursement.

“If they play their cards right, that can cover it all,” he said.

Grand Valley State has a program that allows local nurses with an associate degree to earn a bachelor’s in mostly online classes. Students have to travel to Grand Valley State’s main campus five times a semester, Robinson said.

NMC has an agreement with Davenport University that allows NMC students to get a bachelor’s degree in Traverse City.

Michigan community colleges have been working for years to get legislation passed that would allow them to offer bachelor’s degrees in nursing.

Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, introduced a bill that would do just that last summer. He told the Detroit News in April that he plans to amend that bill, requiring community colleges to get approval from voters in their district to offer the degrees.

Michigan’s 15 four-year universities oppose the legislation, saying it represents “mission creep” by community colleges and would duplicate existing nursing programs.

Schmidt said NMC would pursue offering bachelor of nursing degrees if the bill becomes law. But whatever the Legislature decides, community colleges and universities will play important rules in meeting the region’s future nursing needs.