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South Carolina seeks cure for looming nurse shortage

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Although nursing is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country, South Carolina expects to face a 24% nursing staff shortage over the next few years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nursing students at the University of South Carolina learn the basics of care as they prepare to enter a profession facing a critical supply of registered nurses. A workforce study anticipates a shortage of 6,400 RNs in South Carolina by 2028. (Photos/University of South Carolina)In its 2014 report, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration indicates that though the earlier gap in supply and demand is easing on a national level, South Carolina is one of 16 states projected to have a shortage of registered nurses by 2025. Another 2014 report from the S.C. Office for Healthcare Workforce Analysis and Planning anticipates a shortage of 6,400 registered nurses in South Carolina by 2028.

One of the main problems is the lack of faculty to train prospective students in Registered Nurse (RN) programs, said Ronda Hughes, associate professor and director of the Center for Nursing Leadership at the University of South Carolina.

“We have less nursing faculty, especially with 4-to-6 years’ experience, due to education requirements,” Hughes said. “It limits the sites we can train; we have turned away 1,500 potential qualified students because we couldn’t find the people to teach them.”

As many experienced nurses begin to retire, it’s crucial for hospitals to not only keep their tenured nurses, but also recent RN graduates.

Hughes said with the lack of qualified RNs, hospitals are relying more on agency workers. These are nurses that come from outside the organization to help with patient care. Hughes said these workers can sometimes cost double what a full-time employee is paid.

In a report from the Institute of Medicine, it was determined that the use of temporary nursing staff or agency workers can threaten patient safety.

The South Carolina Office for Healthcare Workforce said in a policy brief: Nursing shortages disrupt the timely delivery of health care and jeopardize the safety of hospital patients.

Lexington Medical Center has seen the staffing needs, and is taking initiative to combat the possible shortage.

Roger Sipe, senior vice president of operations, says LMC has developed a task force that meets regularly to draw up plans on how to recruit the best talent.

“With a new wing being developed and continued growth in Lexington County, we know how hard it is to bring in qualified personnel,” Sipe said. “There is a competitive nature with hiring in the Midlands, and we know there are some specialties we have to reach. We are already looking for staff years in advance of opening our new tower.”

Hughes would like to see the state support its health care system by providing funding for more nursing leadership faculty and facilities. This would help increase training with hopes of graduating more experienced, well-equipped workers.

“The key to solving the problem is funding,” Hughes said. “We also need hospitals to retain current workforce, and have programs where students can come ready to work.”

The University of South Carolina currently has 1,130 undergraduate students in its nursing program along with 375 graduate students. The university also offers a nationally rated graduate online program.

Midlands Technical College offers an associate degree in nursing, which is designed to teach and prepare prospective students for the registered nurse’s role.

A policy brief from July 2014 stated that this is a good time to concentrate on areas of nursing workforce policy beyond the need to simply increase the number of new graduates.

The national Institute of Medicine, through the Committee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Initiative on the Future of Nursing, studied the role of nurses in the changing health care system. They formed a set of recommendations designed to bring about the characteristics needed in the nursing workforce of the future.

These recommendations include:

  • Remove scope of practice barriers to allow advanced practice nurses to practice to the full extent of their education and training.
  • Implement nurse residency programs to support nurses as they first begin to practice or move into new clinical practice areas.
  • Increase the proportion of nurses with a nursing baccalaureate degree to 80% by 2020.
  • Double the number of nurses with a doctorate by 2020.

Hughes concluded that if the current situation is not addressed, patients could see an increase in hospital bills due to additions to the hospital’s operational cost and the increase of a safe vacancy rate.

“Vacancy rates are how long it takes hospitals to find new personnel; they affect access to health care and impact the level of care patients receive,” Hughes said. “A safe vacancy rate averages at about 5%. If we don’t address the shortage, South Carolina’s vacancy rate could reach as high as 25%.”

Reach Travis Boland at 803-726-7543.

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April 12, 2017

Doctoral and Master's prepared nurse practitioners earn 25-33% less as faculty than in private practice. The state will have to subsidize faculty compensation to draw nurses to education.