Initiative seeks to reduce nursing shortage

By Jay Logan Rogers and Steve Gehrke

Among the last minute budget decisions lawmakers will decide at Capitol Hill today is whether to make good on their promise to fund the Nursing Initiative.

Advocates hope the Legislature grants the U’s College of Nursing the full $2 million originally requested in ongoing funding by granting $700,000 this year.

“We still have a fairly severe nursing shortage,” said Maureen Keefe, dean of the College of Nursing. “The Baby Boomers are just starting to retire, and those nurses are starting to retire at the same point that we need more nurses. People are living longer; we’ve had an influx of growth to our population in Utah; we have one of the highest birth rates in the country; and we have the most senior citizens in the country, too.”

Despite this year’s Legislature allocating an unexpectedly low amount of funding for higher education, advocates hope lawmakers will fund part of their request.

“So far they have not approved the full $700,000, but we’re confident that we’re going to get at least half of that,” said Joseph Krella, president of the Utah Hospital Association, a trade association for the state’s health care industry.

Leaders of Utah’s health-care industry initially proposed the Nursing Initiative four years ago. These leaders were concerned that the state was not producing enough nurses. They agreed to raise $1 million for improving and expanding nursing education, as long as the state Legislature would match that money by appropriating $2 million in state funds for the effort.

“It’s pretty rare for an industry to come forward like that,” said David Gessel, vice president of government relations and legal affairs for the Utah Hospital Association.

Thanks to the lobbying efforts of Gessel and others involved in health-care and nursing education over the past four years, $1.3 million was secured as ongoing funding in the state budget. This year’s request for an additional $700,000, if funded, would bring the ongoing appropriations up to speed with the original request.

However, recent decisions made by the Executive Appropriations Committee, in allocating less money than expected for higher education, have made full funding less likely.

The Nursing Initiative seeks to mitigate the impact of the nationwide nursing shortage in Utah.

Ivy Lawrence, a senior in the College of Nursing, said that while working at University Hospital she has personally seen the impact of the shortage.

“There’s always staffing needs. There’s never a floor that couldn’t use an extra nurse. The patient loads are getting heavier,” Lawrence said.

The U’s College of Nursing plays a unique role in the state’s nursing education system.

“The University of Utah is the flagship. We have a full range of programs. Nobody else offers a Ph.D.,” Keefe said.

The doctorate is a critical element in solving the issue because the shortage of nurses is facilitated by a shortage of faculty to train them. Students who obtain doctorates often move on to the academic field and would increase program sizes.

In the past year, the number of undergraduate students in the U nursing program has increased from about 175 to 200. Still, the program only has space to admit about one out of three applicants.

Keefe said she hopes the Nursing Initiative will continue so the U can keep expanding its program and help address the nursing shortage.

“If we’re able to sustain the initiative for the next five years, we should have, on top of the nurses that we’ve already prepared, an additional 500 to 600 more. That’ll really help us move toward our goal of 1,000 new nurses. It’s been a wonderful partnership and a good initiative,” she said.

Because the U’s nursing program is instrumental in training faculty to expand statewide programs, it is a special focus of the Nursing Initiative.

“The U gets a little more money because they’re actually hiring the Ph.D.s that will teach the master’s level nurses at the university, who then can go out and teach at the community colleges or Weber State or wherever, and we add new students that way,” Gessel said.

Keefe said that Nursing Initiative funding is mainly used to hire and retain faculty.

“The great limiting factor on expanding your enrollment is how many faculty you have. We have classroom space, and we have clinical placements around the valley, but we don’t have enough faculty. The fact that there’s a nursing faculty shortage is actually driving and making worse the nursing shortage,” she said.