Nurses are lured with scholarships

Six Md. hospitals to offer $2,500 to Howard students

May 07, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Desperate for nurses, more Maryland hospitals are turning to a recruitment tactic perfected by the military: scholarships in return for service.

In a program that is to be announced tomorrow, six hospitals in the Baltimore region and Montgomery County will offer $2,500 in financial aid to advanced nursing students at Howard Community College who agree to remain on their staff for a year or two after graduation.

The payoff is one of an array of steps that hospitals and nursing schools are taking to contend with a growing national shortage of the medical professionals who are in growing demand from emergency rooms to retirement homes.

Maryland's hospitals have about 2,000 unfilled nursing jobs -- a 15 percent vacancy rate, according to the Maryland Hospital Association. Experts say the shortage is likely to worsen in coming years -- leaving working nurses exhausted and frustrated as they try to care for rising numbers of patients -- unless there's significant growth in nursing-school enrollment.

"For every eight nurses that are retiring in Maryland, there are only three nurses moving into the work force," said Susan Wozenski, an assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, which has partnerships with hospitals.

The number of nursing students in the state increased 1 percent last year, according to Maryland Board of Nursing statistics. The average age of nurses is 46.

Hospitals in the state are holding the line by asking their staffs to work extra shifts. But that won't work forever, said Donna M. Dorsey, executive director of the state nursing board.

"The nurses leave with great frustration each shift because they feel they are just not able to give the care that they would love to give," said Diane C. Smith, a nurse manager at Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown.

Although nursing shortages have occurred before, the current shortfall appears more difficult to fix, said Nancy Fiedler, spokeswoman for the state hospital association.

As people live longer and need more care, the number and type of nursing jobs have exploded. And increasing regulations add to the workload.

"For every hour of care, there's half an hour of paperwork," said Linda Harder, a spokeswoman for St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson.

Douglas Staiger, an associate professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the nursing field, thinks a key underlying cause is that job opportunities for women have multiplied since the 1970s -- when nursing and teaching were still the main choices.

Nursing remains a female-dominated field, but today's women aren't entering it at the same rate as their predecessors, he said.

"Some of the worst shortages are in areas where young nurses work" such as intensive care units, said Staiger, who projects a shortage of 400,000 nurses nationwide in 20 years. "So it's kind of the canary in the coal mine."

Hospital officials have tried marketing the career to youths by visiting high schools, but they hope that scholarships will be more persuasive.

"The demand is high but the supply isn't there, so all the hospitals are pulling from the same source," said Agnes Pambid, the nurse recruiter at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Along with Mercy, St. Joseph Medical Center, Northwest Hospital Center, Montgomery General Hospital in Olney, Maryland General Hospital in Baltimore and Howard County General Hospital in Columbia have signed on to give scholarships to HCC students.

Each hospital plans to offer five annually to second-year students. Some are setting up scholarship programs with other colleges in Maryland.

Wozenski, the University of Maryland nursing administrator, said its hospital-sponsored scholarship program, which has been in effect since fall 1999, has helped 112 students pursue nursing careers.

Wozenski said the aid has been particularly useful because the students established lab practicums with the hospitals that eased their transition to work.

Hospitals offering scholarships through the Maryland program include Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland Medical System and Sinai Hospital.

Administrators at HCC, which has a smaller-than-normal graduating class of 35 nursing students this year, think the financial help will give recipients more time to concentrate on their studies. And it might even speed their education.

"Often our students have one, perhaps two jobs," said Nancy Smith, executive director of the college's Educational Foundation. "Hopefully, this will help them focus on the program."

At HCC on Friday, nursing students closing in on the end of their final semester said they would have appreciated the assistance.

"I was working three to four days a week the first year," said Trish Remmey, 27, who lives in Stevensville. "It was hard, particularly around tests."

She quit, but that caused other problems. "Poverty for a semester," she said, sighing.

"And credit card debt," added Pam Wilhelm, who lives in Kensington.

Elkridge resident Terri McDonald, 40, was happy to have a state scholarship this year, which helped her train for her third -- and, she says, final -- career.

"When I started this, it was like, `Oh, my, why didn't I do this 20 years ago?'" she said.

George Velianoff, chief operating officer for the Emergency Nurses Association in Illinois, said the scholarships-for-service idea was popular during the last shortage, in the 1980s. "Some of those older ideas are coming back," he said. "I know there are hospitals and schools that are doing that throughout the country again. It worked fairly well."

Still, Staiger, the Dartmouth professor, doesn't expect it will turn the tide this time. He has a solution that would -- but it's not an easy fix.

"Get men into the field," he said. "That would solve the problem overnight because it would double the number of people going into nursing.

"And that's what we need."

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