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Recruitment Efforts Gain Popularity To Headoff Nursing Shortages

Originally Posted: April 04, 2008

Mariah Quinn

Hospitals employ approximately 60 percent of the registered nurses nationwide. Above, the nurses' desk in the maternity ward at Southampton Hospital. Photos by Mariah Quinn

Southampton - Despite some 2.5 million nurses nationwide, local demand for nursing care continues to increase, resulting in shortages that are expected to worsen in the coming decade. At Southampton Hospital and Eastern Long Island Hospital (ELIH) in Greenport, administrators have dealt with the impending shortage in a number of ways, from paying for the education of staff interested in becoming nurses to hiring nurses on a temporary basis to cover seasonal demands.

Local hospitals must deal with a changing variety of factors when recruiting nursing staff. At ELIH, the remote location of the hospital add traffic issues to hinder recruitment, while in Southampton staffing needs climb during the summer, when an influx of summer residents puts additional pressures on the hospital.

Southampton Hospital hires extra nurses during the summer
season to meet seasonal demand for hospital services.

The hospitals have a growing pool of nurses from which to draw, according to Susan Dewey-Hammer, the Nursing Program Coordinator of Suffolk County Community College's School of Nursing, who said after a decline in enrollment for a "number of years," the number of students has risen noticeably over the past five years. Dewey-Hammer estimated there have been an additional 90 students each year for the past three years in the school's nursing program, which currently has about 800 students, most of whom take jobs on Long Island. Nonetheless, "even with this increased number of nurses, because there has been this decline for so many years, and the entire nursing workforce is getting older, we still believe there is going to be a huge shortage," she explained.

The country will need an additional 600,000 nurses by 2016 to meet growing demand, and "hundreds of thousands of job openings will result from the need to replace experienced nurses who leave the occupation," according to a 2006 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dealing With The Shortage
Small hospitals like the 80-bed ELIH, which has a nursing staff of 48 whose combined hours amount to 40 full-time employees, feel the nursing shortage more acutely. "We are a small hospital, so we are really impacted when we are down one nurse," Pat Pispisa, the vice president for patient services at ELIH, commented. In the past, the hospital tapped into a roster of international and traveling nurses, who generally stay for between three months and one year, but at times have been unable to keep staff for long periods of time. "It can be difficult to recruit and retain people because of our geographic location," Pispisa explained.

With the international nurses "our goal at that time was that we were hoping they would stay with us, but there were some cultural differences, and sometimes young women had commitments to go home," Pispisa said.

Seeking to create a more permanent pool of recruits, the hospital created a scholarship program to pay for the education of current employees wishing to attend nursing school. "We've been able to recruit and retain staff, so right now we don't feel the impact of the shortage," Pispisa explained, adding, "the scholarship program is filling the gap." Nine students have participated in the program thus far; three graduated in January, and were scheduled to start at the hospital on March 31. Participants in the program, whose tuition, fees, and books are paid for, must commit to work at ELIH for at least two years.

Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport has partnered with Suffolk Community College's School of Nursing to train nurses to work at the hospital.

"These are really people from the community," Pipisa said. "Hopefully they're going to being staying in the community for the long term."

ELIH's program is part of a wider effort by area hospitals and Suffolk County Community College's School of Nursing in an effort to train more nurses. Seven Long Island hospitals, including ELIH and Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, committed funding to the school to hire additional faculty and expand its nursing program. In return, the hospitals are guaranteed a certain number of slots in SCCC's nursing program to train staff, who then work at the respective hospitals for a set period of time.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the nation will need an
additional 600,000 nurses by 2016 to keep up with growing
demand for medical care.

Summer Spikes and Traffic Woes
At Southampton Hospital, Marsha Kenny, the director of public affairs for the hospital, cited traffic as "the biggest problem" in recruiting nurses. "We hope that will be alleviated by the widening of County Road 39." Southampton has a staff of 204 registered nurses, 75 of whom work on a per diem basis, and 23 licensed practical nurses, two of whom are per diem.

The time when traffic is at is worst is also when the hospital sees its greatest demand for nursing services. Southampton Hospital, as with many South Fork businesses, sees its numbers shoot up during the summer months. "We hire extra nurses in the summer; we hired about 10 last year," explained Kenny, "Like everyone, business is crazy during the summer, and we need extra nurses."

The hospital recruits at local colleges including Suffolk County Community College and Stony Brook; holds job fairs; sends out direct mailings to area nurses, and gives hospital tours to those interested in working at the hospital. "We work really hard at it," Kenny said. "It's an issue at the front of our nursing administrator's mind."

Even as the hospitals hire new nurses, the number of nurses who are approaching retirement age is significant. "The nursing population for the most part everywhere is aging up," Kenny said. At ELIH, 25 percent of the nurses are 55 or older. At Southampton, "the number we think of when we think in terms of future retirement is over 48, and yes we have quite a few who are that age," Kenny said.

Dealing with the looming retirements of significant portions of the staff requires the hospitals to be continually focused on staffing levels. "Even though we're on top of things, things can change," Kenny said, adding "It's somewhat fluid; we're always recruiting new nurses. It's a year-round activity."

The emergency room at Southampton Hospital sees a spike in visits during the summer months.

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