Nurse shortage puts strain on hospitals

Institutions proffer pay raises and perks

June 19, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Facing a critical nursing shortage, hospitals in Maryland and nationwide are going to great lengths to attract new talent. Some are dangling higher salaries. Others offer signing bonuses. Mass mailings across the region describe tantalizing opportunities.

Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson is trying to cope with 20 percent vacancy rates on its nursing staff. This week, Sheppard Pratt will announce incentives that include what officials describe as "handsome" raises, as well as flexible schedules, scholarships and bonuses to strengthen recruitment and retention of registered nurses.

With the problem expected to worsen, hospital officials say aggressive recruitment - long favored by high-tech and pharmaceutical companies and major-league sports franchises - will be adopted by health institutions across the country.

After two years of no growth, the number of registered nurses with active licenses in the state declined by 2,235 last year, according to the Maryland Board of Nursing. The number of registered nurses dropped to 45,700 in 1999, its lowest level in five years.

Simultaneously, enrollment in all types of nursing programs has declined over the last three years, with many community colleges reporting difficulty in filling fall 1999 classes. The state Department of Health estimates that for every eight nurses who retire, three new graduates enter the profession. The average age of nurses in Maryland is 47.

"There are recruitment wars going on out there," said Kay L. Sienkilewski, director of clinical services at Sheppard Pratt. "The nation is undergoing one of the most intensive nursing shortages I've seen in 40 years."

Under normal conditions, Sienkilewski said, a little more than 5 percent of a graduating class elects to go into psychiatric nursing.

"We're going head-to-head with places like Johns Hopkins," Sienkilewski said. "It's tough, so we have to be far more ... creative than everyone else."

Many other hospitals have retooled their hiring practices.

Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis allows online applications. The hospital targets licensed nurses in the region with four direct mailings during a six-month period that focus on the hospital's new technologies, specialists and expansion plans. Potential hires are promised a quick response.

Anne Arundel's first direct mailing received more than 35 responses.

Employees at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore are offered a referral bonus for each nurse they bring to the system, and each nurse recruited receives a $3,000 bonus. Union Memorial also started a partnership with Villa Julie College that allows nursing students to apply for endowments from the Baltimore hospital and use the facility for clinical training.

Johns Hopkins Hospital uses its employees in radio advertising and television spots and sells itself as the employer of choice - not a stretch considering the institution's No. 1 ranking among American hospitals.

"We realize there are no quick fixes to this problem, but we have a two-pronged approach," said Joan Levy, a Hopkins spokeswoman. "We've created a more competitive compensation package for nurses and gotten the message out that Hopkins should be at the top of your list."

With such stiff competition, Sheppard Pratt has to work harder for nurses.

A nurse with eight to 10 years of experience at Sheppard Pratt typically makes about $48,100 a year for working a variety of shifts, hospital officials said. With recent changes in policy, nurses received a $2,000 bonus this year for remaining at Sheppard Pratt. Officials made grueling shifts more attractive, offering a $5,000 signing bonus for working nights a full year and almost $6,000 for nurses who choose weekend duty for a year.

Soon, Sienkilewski said, nurses will make even more as Sheppard Pratt rewards loyalty with regular raises later in their careers. The hospital also will start developing its own employees.

Five Towson University students studying psychiatric nursing in their senior year will receive a scholarship for tuition and fees. Those students will have the opportunity to spend one paid day a week doing rounds with nurses during the school year and to work a 10-week paid internship after graduation. The payback is a two-year commitment to work at Sheppard Pratt.

"This isn't the first shortage we've ever had. In the past, we threw money at the problem," said Donna Dorsey, the executive director of the Maryland Board of Nursing. "We can't do that this time. We can't just put a finger in the dike."

Many hospitals are developing programs to teach middle and high school students about the profession. Others have started mailing nursing schools with requests for graduates' names.

Many have posted ads on the Internet. The U.S. Navy has several dozen openings in nearly every state for nursing positions. The jobs come with a $5,000 bonus.

Five years ago, Towson University stopped holding career days for nursing students because the opportunities were bleak. This year, the school will hold two career days to handle all the health agencies looking for help.

Said Cynthia E. Kielinen of Towson's Department of Nursing: "All of our students who want jobs, have jobs upon graduation."

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