A team treatment for nurse shortage

Mentor program draws, keeps recruits at hospital


August 20, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Faced with a shortage of nurses, Carroll County General Hospital created a mentoring program - a move that has boosted its nursing staff while others across the state scramble for recruits.

Begun several months ago, the well-received program pairs veteran nurses with new employees or interns for up to a year and provides incentives for interns to join Carroll's staff. Supervising mentors oversee the pairs and offer guidance. The goal is not only to retain and hire more nurses but to build and maintain a support network for the hospital's nursing staff.

"Nursing school doesn't prepare you for the real world," said Michele Bossi, an intern who has been working with veteran Leisa McDaniels since January, one of the first pairs. "This program has made me more confident."

The program - which allows interns to work at the hospital for the first time - is credited with attracting 68 nurses to the busy Westminster hospital this year. That has kept the hospital's vacancy rate - the number of unfilled nursing positions - at 7 percent, about half of the state's rate, according to hospital officials.

For Carroll County residents, that means a higher ratio of nurses to patients, which leads to more attention, improved care and better-trained nurses.

More than 2,000 registered nurse positions remain unfilled in Maryland hospitals, according to a recent survey by the Maryland Hospital Association. Vacancy rates have increased for the past three years.

Carroll County has been able to hire more nurses, and its turnover rate has declined from 44 percent in 2000 to 18 percent this year. Leslie Simmons, the hospital's vice president of patient care services, attributes the decline to the mentoring program.

"The cost of turnover is tremendous," she said. "For every one nurse you lose, it costs the organization $40,000."

The program began in January after the hospital received an $82,000 grant from the Health Services Cost Review Commission under the auspices of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The hospital asked for $300,000 to create the five supervisory positions to oversee the pairs and has had to cover the difference. Veteran nurses were promoted to the posts.

Ivy Brown was among the nurses promoted to supervisor, and she has been overseeing McDaniels and Bossi.

The pair has worked as a team since January and was busy in the critical-care unit one recent morning. By 9 a.m., they had received the night shift's report on their two patients, talked to a physician, consulted physical therapy, fed the patients, and reviewed areas of concern.

The program has allowed Bossi to do nearly everything a licensed registered nurse would do, except administer drugs, take orders from a physician, and take blood. What's important, McDaniels said, is that Bossi has credibility with physicians - an achievement difficult for those fresh from nursing school.

"To spend an entire year together, you have to be very compatible. We have the same intensity and same values at work," McDaniels said.

Before joining the program, Bossi was looking to work at other hospitals. To lure her and other interns, Carroll County offers tuition reimbursement, a competitive salary, medical and dental benefits and a pension plan.

"After eight months of interning in the unit, she knows the flow and routine as well as any RN on the unit," McDaniels said. "Anybody can learn to do the technical part of the job, but it's the critical thinking skills that put the whole picture of the patient together. She has the knowledge base that the nursing school gives her, but this program helps tie everything together."

When she passes one patient onto another nurse, she gives a narrative of his medical situation and personal history - what he likes to eat and other personal details.

"I like the more hands-on, bedside part of nursing. I get to see the whole plan of care, not just one specific area," Bossi said. "What a blessing it is to be there when someone starts to get better, to see families and to help with their comfort level and be an advocate for them. It's so rewarding."

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