A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky hospitals struggling to find enough nurses; colleges working toward finding solutions


By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

While studies show Kentucky will have a surplus of registered nurses in the next decade, right now many of the state’s hospitals are struggling to hire enough nurses to care for patients.

“I am hoping this is cyclical,” said Susan Ellis, the vice president of Patient Care Services at Highlands Regional Medical Center in Prestonsburg. “But my fear is that this one is much deeper than any of the past nursing shortages that I have seen, and by deeper I mean it is spread much wider.”

Most of the state’s critical-access hospitals, which usually have fewer than 20 patients at a time, haven’t been hit by the shortage. But at any given time larger Kentucky hospitals may have between a 10 percent and 40 percent vacancy rate, Ellis said.

Highlands is a 184-bed facility that needs about 120 registered nurses in its clinical area and is about 24 short, or 20 percent.

“We are feeling it in our facilities,” Ellis said. “And surrounding facilities that I have spoken to, some of their chief nursing officers, they are feeling it too. . . . You really can’t run your facility without your registered nurses; they are at the patient’s bedsides.”

UK College of Nursing students practice (Photo Provided)

The University of Kentucky, which operates a 569-bed hospital that largely serves Central and Eastern Kentucky, has also struggled with the shortage of nurses.

“I think most of the folks in Lexington who are trying to hire registered nurses would share a similar perspective,” said Colleen Swartz, the chief nurse executive at UK HealthCare. “For example, as recently as three years ago, which would put us in that 2013-14 time-frame, we would post a registered nurse position and get 20 applications for it, but right now we have positions that we have posted and re-posted and had no applicants.”

Kentucky has about 45,500 full-time employed RNs, whose average annual salary is about $60,000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Kentucky Board of Nursing website reports 69,337 active RN licenses in the state.

The latest Kentucky Occupational Outlook to 2024 report said the state would need an additional 16,047 full-time registered nurses between 2014 and 2024, or a 36 percent increase from the estimated 45,086 in the 2014 workforce to the projected need of 61,133. “Health-care-related occupations are expected to grow at such a high rate primarily because of Kentucky’s aging population,” the report said.

By 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts. The National Council on Aging says 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, and 68 percent have at least two.

Peter Buerhaus, a health-care workforce expert at Montana State University, agreed that the aging population will increase the need for new nurses, but added that states should also pay attention to their retiring RN workforce because more than one-third of RNs are likely to retire over the next 10 years.

“One million nurses who are over the age of 50 are going to be retiring, and with that retirement goes an awful lot of knowledge and skill and experience,” Buerhaus said. “It is a major, major quantitative and qualitative change in nursing.” He added that health reform and the primary-care provider shortage, which is expected to worsen over the next 10 years, will also drive the need for more nurses.

Retirement does not appear to be as big a problem in Kentucky as in most states. The average age of a Kentucky nurse is 40; the national average is 50.

Swartz said UK HealthCare didn’t have any immediate concerns about losing nurses to retirement, but said the hospital has worked with its older nurses to figure out how to best manage the large geographic footprint of the facility as it has grown.

“There are nurses who have been here, say 20 years,” Swartz said. “You just can’t replace the judgment and the knowledge and the critical thinking that they have through those years of experience. It’s priceless to us.”

Buerhaus said there isn’t a nursing shortage from “a big macro national perspective,” but that some areas of the country, especially rural areas, are experiencing a shortage. “It is an uneven picture across the country.”

Buerhaus noted that his research, published in the journal Nursing Outlook, forecast that Kentucky, as part of the East South Central region of the U.S., is expected to have “substantial growth” in its number of full-time registered nurses between 2015 to 2030.

“What this suggest to me is that in the East South Central part of this country we are going to have fewer older nurses who are going to retire and a stronger growth of young people coming in,” he said about his research findings.

A 2014 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report says that nationwide there will be a surplus of 340,000 full-time equivalent registered nurses in 2025, and a surplus of 16,500 in Kentucky.

However, another report by Georgetown University, which it says uses a study methodology based on nursing demand and “active supply,” says that by 2020, the nation will have a shortage of about 193,000 nursing professionals by 2020.

Whatever forecast is correct, that doesn’t affect today’s shortage of nurses in Kentucky, which is forcing hospitals and nursing schools to find creative ways to fill those vacancies.

Staffing solutions and challenges

Both Highlands and UK HealthCare said shortages and a need for specialty trained nurses have caused them to start using agency nurses again.

Agency nurses, also called travel nurses, take short-term contracts that allow them to easily take time off or move around. Their contracts are usually for three months at a time.

“We have not used travel nurses in probably five to seven years,” said Ellis, of Highlands. “Their expense is higher than normal. . . . When you think for one nurse, you could potentially be paying double,” adding that this added cost “can actually put a small facility on the edge.”

Swartz said UK HealthCare had not used agency nurses for more than a decade, but they now make up almost 2 percent of their nursing workforce, mostly in specialty areas where it takes time to train someone.

“We have a rigorous screening process we go through before we accept anyone in that agency kind of format, but honestly we’ve had some really clinically strong nurses come through who we’ve been able to utilize during this period where we’ve been unable to hire ourselves,” Swartz said.

Highlands also offers a sign-on bonus and an incentive program for employee referrals, but Ellis said traveling-nurse agencies also offer this incentive and have lured several of her nurses away.

“And just like I’m trying to use my staff to recruit nurses, the travel companies actually use their staff to recruit staff to travel. And we have lost individuals in our organization who wanted to go travel because they hear about this bright, shiny money travel adventure and they sign on,” she said.

In addition, Highlands is planning to hire four internationally trained nurses, who would commit to working there for two years. Ellis said they would be paid the same as the current staff, but the hospital would be responsible for their recruiting costs, including immigration fees upward of $15,000 per RN.

“I think it is another way to help the problem, and let’s say I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said.

But Fran Feltner said, “I’m not sure it is the answer.” Feltner is director of UK’s Center of Excellence in Rural Health, which focuses on improving health-care provider shortages in Appalachia.

Feltner said she understood why hospitals use internationally trained nurses, but also said they can create a language barrier to care for patients and families who already may struggle with health literacy.

Highlands has also revived its nurse-intern program as a recruiting tool. This paid “shadowing” program, which includes 14 student interns from the local nursing school, pairs an intern with a registered nurse in a department of the student’s interest, in hopes they will join Highlands upon graduation.

The program seems to be working, at least for Samantha Thomas, who will graduate in May with an associate degree in nursing from Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Prestonsburg. Thomas said she joined the internship program to explore working in the intensive care unit and plans to continue working there after graduation.

“I think it’s a really great way for Highlands to recruit nurses because once we work there, then we will want to stay,” she said. “I think I’ll stay there for at least two years until I’m really comfortable with my skills — and I may stay there forever.”

Highlands may be on to something

UK’s Swartz, who was chief nursing officer at Clark Regional Hospital in Winchester, said that while it is often hard to recruit nurses to rural areas, once they hire on, they are often “so committed to that facility and to the people there, it was very much a service orientation to that community.”

Swartz said UK HealthCare doesn’t offer signing bonuses or incentives for employee referrals, but does have an aggressive recruiting program that touts their “amazing benefits package.”

Appalachian Regional Healthcare, an 11-hospital system that serves Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, is reported to have severe nursing shortages, with around 177 RN job openings listed on its website, as well as many for licensed practical nurses. ARH also offers a $5,000 signing bonus for qualified full-time RNs and a $2,000 incentive to employees for referring an RN who is hired.

To further meet the “dire need for nurses in Eastern Kentucky,” ARH has formed a partnership with Galen College of Nursing, a private nursing college, at ARH Hazard, which opened for its first class of associate-degree students in March.

ARH opted to not answer questions on the subject.

Partners in education

Through a strategic partnership, Swartz said UK’s College of Nursing has increased its number of graduates from 80 to 200 over the past five or six years to help the hospital meet its staffing needs.

“But honestly right now, we can probably take another doubling of class size,” she said. “The last several years we hired almost 600 nurses every year because of the growth phases that we’ve been in.”

Swartz said the hospital has had to become more “intentional and deliberate” in planning for recruitment, strategically timing the openings of floors in its new pavilion with graduation dates.

Many nursing-education programs find it hard to expand because they have aging faculty, who must be doctoral-prepared, and non-competitive pay, not to mention limited clinical access for training and student/faculty ratios that are mandated by the state. UK’s College of Nursing just posted five open faculty positions.

Another staffing challenge is that many nurses come immediately out of nursing school with their sights already set on the next job, such as nurse-midwife or nurse practitioner. Swartz said it is not unusual for UK HealthCare to turn over 12 to 15 nurses each year who leave to become certified registered nurse anesthetists.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing says that in 2014, entry-level Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs turned away 50,681 qualified applicants. This has been common in Kentucky.

There is also a push for nurses with associate degrees, who make up 60 percent of Kentucky’s registered nurses, to get baccalaureate degrees. The state has 15 BSN programs and 40 asscoate-degree programs.

UK Nursing Dean Janie Heath said the Institute of Medicine recommends that 80 percent of the nursing workforce should be educated at the baccalaureate level by 2020, because there is growing evidence that links nurses with higher education levels to better health outcomes for patients.

“Kentucky, as well as the rest of the country, is moving the needle, but we are not going to make that 2020 mark,” Heath said.

Technology may help. The UK nursing college moved its RN-BSN program fully online in the fall of 2015, after research found that most RNs in Kentucky have easy access to computers and the internet.

And as many hospitals in the state do, both Highlands and UK HealthCare offer tuition reimbursement for employees who further their education.

Patricia “Pat” Burkhart, professor and associate dean of undergraduate faculty affairs at UK’s nursing college, said faculty are working on innovative ways to further develop the nursing workforce, with a focus on second-degree students and second-career military medics.

“What they have wanted is more fast pace,” Burkhart said. “Where our traditional students want their summers off, second degree, which we are calling second-career medics or second-degree students, want to get it done as quick as they can and want to go through the summer, so we are looking at a different model now for them.”

Looking to the future, Health said nursing schools must make sure they are educating students to have primary-care competencies, so they can manage individuals, families and communities.

Resiliency and Retention

Heath said UK’s College of Nursing is working hard to make sure its graduates have the skill sets they need to work in today’s complex environments, whether urban or rural, putting top priority on helping them learn to be resilient.

“Science is there,” Heath said, “that if we are not taking good care of ourselves, we can’t take good care of our patients, our families, our communities.”

Burkhart said, “We are seeing students coming in who are graduates that are looking for work-life balance, so much more than our generation.” She said the industry isn’t adjusting “fast enough” to this changing attitude.

Heath said it’s important for health-care facilities to create healthy environments as a way to retain nurses, suggesting the need for policies and practices that let nurses know they are supported, including things like building inter-professional relationships, or even as simple as providing pet therapy for the staff. Studies show that healthy work environments create better health outcomes for patients, she said.

“It’s the simple things,” she said. “Things like abusive behavior, bullying, screaming, yelling is not tolerated in this environment. You know, when you’ve got that coming out from the top — of zero tolerance of inappropriate behavior — that didn’t cost a thing.”

Burkhart added, “I think we all knew that we needed a caring environment for our patients, but I think [what] we are now being responsive to is that caring environment needs to translate to the staff as well, whether it is respectful discourse, or confidentiality, or the little things that show that you care about your staff, just the way we are asking staff to care about patients. Every patient, every time.”

An example of this philosophy in action is St. Joseph Martin, a critical-access hospital with 25 beds that employs about 45 RNs and is part of KentuckyOne Health. It has been selected as one of the best places to work among small employers in the annual Best Places to Work in Kentucky list for the past three years.

Billie Turner, the hospital’s chief nursing officer and vice president of patient-care services, said it doesn’t have a nursing shortage because it has a great place for nurses to work: “I strongly feel that it is a good work environment, more so than anything else, that helps us with retention.”

This article was produced as part of the Health Care Workforce Media Fellowship, run by the Center for Health, Media & Policy, New York, N.Y. The fellowship is supported by a grant from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation. Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.


Related Posts

Leave a Comment