Western Maine hospitals seek new ways to combat nursing shortage

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Hospital officials in western Maine are steeling themselves for an experienced nursing shortage as many reach retirement age. 

On Feb. 14, the Nursing Leaders of Maine, the American Nursing Association of Maine and the Maine Nursing Action Coalition announced the results of the 2016 Maine Nursing Forecaster, which looked at the demographics of Maine’s existing nurses, the projected demands for health care services and the trends in Maine’s nursing education.

The forecast projected that Maine will face a nursing shortage of 3,200 registered nurses by 2025, and that the state’s new worker demographic, made up of people ages 18 to 24, is expected to decline by nearly 5 percent by 2027.

However, Jill Rollins, director of acute care services at Bridgton Hospital, said she’s not worried about finding nurses to fill the positions.

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“We have plenty of new, young nurses coming in, and I don’t even mean young as in their age,” Rollins said. “I mean young as in the experience they have on the job. I don’t worry about finding the bodies to fill positions when older nurses retire.”

She said the problem is that when older nurses leave, “out goes that wisdom and experience.”

“There’s nobody left to train the new nurses, to teach them, groom them and show them all the things you need to see and experience to become a better nurse,” Rollins said. “That’s the biggest problem I see as a result of the nursing shortage: the watering-down of experience, skill and knowledge.”

Style that suits 

Rob Slattery, vice president of operations for Bridgton and Rumford hospitals, said he believes the communities served by the Central Maine Healthcare family are “going to be challenged with that shortage.”

“The challenge going forward is having qualified staff coming up through the organization who can replace the nurses reaching retirement age,” Slattery said.

According to the 2016 Maine Nursing Forecaster, in 2015, the median age of Maine nurses was 49, and 10,984 nurses in Maine are 45 or older, while 7,764 are 44 and younger.

Those numbers line up with what Becky Hall, director of patient care services at Rumford Hospital, has seen in the units she oversees.

Hall said that of the 92 registered nurses at Rumford Hospital, more than half of them are due to retire or are considering retirement within the next 10 years.

She said she has nearly 50 nurses who are 50 and older, including 20 who were 60 and older, and 24 nurses in their 20s and 30s.

Rollins said Bridgton Hospital recently had a large turnover of nurses.

“We had a huge number of nurses retire, and we ended up bringing a lot of younger girls in,” Rollins said. “My retired folks are phasing themselves out by working per diem, so the average age of my nurses is much younger compared to some hospitals.”

Both Hall and Rollins said that they have noticed certain positions within the hospitals will go unfilled for longer periods, and both suspect it has something to do with younger nurses struggling to find a style of nursing that suits them.

“A lot of younger nurses come in and think they can work Monday through Friday, 7 to 3,” Hall said. “I don’t want to say it’s unrealistic, but nursing is a commitment and people have to figure out how to do the job.”

She added that she’s lost nurses to jobs that follow a Monday through Friday work shift.

Patient-centered 

Slattery said the projected nursing shortage could affect Rumford and Bridgton hospitals’ ability to shift to a patient-centered medical home model.

Hospitals have begun to see “more of a trend to home-based care,” in which nurses are going directly to a patient’s home to provide care, Hall said.

“We’re seeing payers taking mobile units and staffing them with a nurse practitioner at the patient’s home, so the patient doesn’t have to come into an office setting,” she said.

Rollins said that eventually, in a patient-centered medical home system, there would be fewer patients at the hospitals “because the insurance is paying for nurses to go to their home.”

“We’ve seen this movement in other parts of the country, and now, we’re seeing it here within our region,” Slattery said.

Hall said it would be vital for hospitals within the Central Maine Healthcare system to make sure there were enough nurses to work within the medical home system and at the hospital itself.

Job-shadowing

A news release from the Nursing Leaders of Maine, the American Nursing Association of Maine and the Maine Nursing Action Coalition said that in order to fill some of the shortages in the coming years, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and the Northern Maine Community College are “launching a Northern Maine Nursing Education Partnership that will make a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree available to students in Presque Isle.”

State Sen. Amy Volk, R-Cumberland, also proposed passing “Maine Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact Legislation” to make it easier to recruit health care providers who are already licensed as nurses in other states.

As for Rumford and Bridgton hospitals, Hall and Rollins said they were both fortunate to have a good relationship with the Maine College of Health Professions in Lewiston, one of only three hospital-based colleges in the state.

Rollins said she and Hall met with Monica Bissell, president of the Maine College of Health Professions, to talk about ways all three hospitals can work together to combat the projected nursing shortage.

Hall said she and Rollins are working on starting a program in which both hospitals seek out the “cream of the crop” at the Maine College of Health Professions and have them shadow an experienced nurse for a week.

“During the last seven weeks before graduating, these students will have a chance to pick which unit they want to work in and then work with an experienced nurse,” Hall said. “Not only are students getting valuable information before they get into the workforce, but they get to figure out if something is the right fit for them.”

Rollins added that the program is about helping students find out whether “this is what I want” and finding somewhere they would be happy working.

“If they find someplace they like to work, retention in those units will go up, and we won’t have to worry about nurses jumping from place to place,” she said. “There’s a great symbiotic relationship that happens.”

Editor’s note: Stephens Memorial Hospital and its parent company Maine Health did not respond to repeated attempts to communicate with someone with regard to the nursing shortage forecast.

mdaigle@sunmediagroup.net

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