Md. plan for more nurses unveiled

The Baltimore Sun

In an effort to ease a worsening nursing shortage, state hospital and university leaders announced an ambitious plan yesterday to double the number of registered nurses educated in Maryland in two years.

Without intervention, Maryland is predicted to be short 10,000 nurses in 10 years, just as the population of baby boomers requires an increased level of medical care, the Maryland Hospital Association said.

There's no lack of interested candidates.

But the state's nursing schools have had to turn away nearly half of all qualified applicants in recent years, as colleges struggle to hire enough teaching professionals from the field to meet that demand.

The new plan would initially create spots for about 1,800 new students in 2009, raising the total of those studying at the state's nursing schools each year to 3,800.

To reach that goal, Maryland's colleges and universities will need to hire 360 more faculty members, offering better salaries to compete with the higher rates nurses are paid in the clinical setting, the hospital association said.

"Many of our graduates earn more, as a starting salary, than the faculty who taught them," said Carol D. Eutis, dean of the health professions school at the Community College of Baltimore County, who spoke at a news conference held at the Maryland Hospital Association in Elkridge yesterday.

The program is projected to cost $59 million in its first two years. Officials plan to ask the state to foot two-thirds of the bill and hope private foundations will underwrite the rest.

But as the General Assembly grapples in special session with Maryland's projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall, securing new state money could prove an obstacle.

"We're going to need additional state funding," said Cal Pierson, president of the Maryland Hospital Association. "We can't afford not to do this."

Gov. Martin O'Malley's had not reviewed the plan yesterday afternoon. But spokeswoman Christine Hansen said the governor would work with the hospital association on the issue.

With O'Malley's proposed tax increases and stated commitment to health care, the dean of the University of Maryland School of Nursing said she is confident the money will be made available.

"It's a hot topic," Dean Janet Allan said. "It's a very good time for us to approach the governor."

Doubling the number of nurses taught in 2009 won't entirely eliminate the state's deficit, proponents of the plan said. But it should cut the vacancy rate to a manageable 6 percent to 8 percent by 2016, a big improvement over last year's 13 percent, the hospital association said.

"No one has a zero percent vacancy rate, in any business," Allan said.

Based on the current numbers, hospitals statewide would hit a 17 percent nurse vacancy rate within 10 years if nothing is done, Pierson said.

Hospital officials also pledged to make more efficient use of the nurses they have. Often a nurse only spends half of an eight-hour shift in direct contact with patients, Allan said.

Filling vacancies with stop-gap measures, by hiring nurses from other countries or through temporary agencies, can no longer keep pace with the rising demand, the hospital association said.

Recruiting more nursing faculty is considered the key long-term solution to reduce the nationwide shortage.

Since nurses must earn a master's degree to teach in Maryland, extra financing should add spots to bachelor's and graduate programs exclusively, said Linda Aiken, a University of Pennsylvania nursing professor and co-director of the National Council on Physician and Nurse Supply.

"That's where the jobs are, that's where the need is and that's how to solve the long-term problem," Aiken said.

A CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield study, conducted by a health policy consulting firm in Princeton, N.J., found that 33,000 qualified applicants were turned down by the country's nursing schools last year due to a lack of educators.

At the University of Maryland alone, about 400 qualified applicants are annually denied admission to the nursing school, Allan said.

Baltimore native Hershaw Davis, 34, was rejected when he applied to the University of Maryland in 2006 for a second bachelor's degree, in nursing. He focused on his grades and volunteer work in the emergency room at Franklin Square Hospital, gaining acceptance last spring.

Now Davis hopes to earn a master's degree and doctorate in nursing, to encourage more students to enter the field.

"As an African-American male, I'm committed to bring in more diversity," Davis said. "Becoming a nurse educator is my long-term goal."

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