- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

Sarah Jenkins, a Catholic University undergraduate, is working on her bachelor's degree in nursing. "My mother is a nurse. I've seen how she touches people, and I want to be a nurse and touch people like she does," said Sarah. She hopes to become a school nurse, which she has tried as a student. "It is a great experience," she said.

Michael Desjardins, a registered nurse at the Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of Utah Hospital for more than a year, took his cue from his dad, a clinical psychologist. "He saw opportunities in the profession, especially for men, and encouraged me to look at it," said Michael. "I love it."

The country needs thousands like Miss Jenkins and Mr. Desjardin to heal a nursing shortage projected to reach 434,000 by 2020. It is so severe that 93 percent of Americans questioned in a poll commissioned by Johnson & Johnson saw it as a danger to quality health care.

One of the most pressing issues facing the health care system today, the nursing shortage has not gone unheeded. Certainly, basic causes are well publicized: for example, aging Baby Boomers include not only more patients needing care but also nurses who retire; women who once became nurses because career choices were few today work at almost every kind of job; and the popular picture of nurses' work tends to omit the many opportunities for men and women to receive good wages and enjoy professional advancement in extended care facilities, clinics, offices, military service, corporations, hospice as well as hospitals and other settings. Documenting this knowledge gap, the Johnson & Johnson poll found only 1 in 4 Americans ever heard of a nurse practitioner who has higher education and can diagnose illness, prescribe medication and participate in treatment decisions.

Many promising remedies are underway. For one, the U.S. government is investing in nurses' education and recruitment. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson just announced $30 million in grants to help colleges, universities and otherorganizations provide training to nurses with advanced degrees and to help repay education loans to nurses who agree to work for two years in designated health facilities facing critical shortages.

For another, Johnson & Johnson this year launched a drive, beginning with more than $20 million for two years, to inspire nursing candidates. Created with the aid of nursing organizations, schools, hospitals and other health care groups, the campaign features brochures, posters and such in high schools and nursing schools plus television commercials celebrating the many facets of nursing. Johnson & Johnson's Campaign for Nursing's Tomorrow also offerings scholarships for undergraduate study and for master's or doctorate degrees for aspiring nurse educators. The first 17 scholarships have been given, and they add to the $2 million in scholarships to undergraduate nursing students since 1974 from the Foundation of the National Student Nurses Association, which in 2002, will give $100,000 more for this purpose.

There's more. Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow, a coalition of 27 nursing organizations, has commenced a national multimedia campaign to polish the public image of nursing. And some states have sponsored groups such as the Maryland Commission on Nursing, created in 2000 to address nursing shortage issues.

These commendable endeavors are only part of the solution, however. Once more men and women are educated and recruited, they must stay on the job.

Yet some leave because of extremely demanding case loads. "Cutbacks in hospital resources resulting from managed care have made nursing more stressful," according to "Health Care's Human Crisis: The American Nursing Shortage," prepared for The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This extensive analysis urges creation of an independent National Forum to Advance Nursing, which "could draw together a range of stakeholders to address the nursing shortage and broader, related health and social issues." Similarly, "In Our Hands: Hospital Leaders Can Build a Thriving Work Force," a report by a commission of the American Hospital Association, recommends joint efforts of health care experts, state and federal policymakers, business and workers.

Nurses, for their part, ask that more hospitals become qualified under the rigorous magnate program of the American Nurses Credentialing Center, which sets high standards for patient care and requires hospitals to reapply every three years. Of 6,000 hospitals in the country, 50 have magnate status.

One is Inova Fairfax, in Fairfax, Va. "We have a professional, autonomous nursing staff. Our staffing ratios are good. Our clinical outcomes are good. Our staff goes to continuing education. We have great tuition reimbursement. We have a lot of people in school to get master's degrees," says Karen Drenkard, chief nurse executive for Inova Health Systems. Four other hospitals in the Inova system are in the process of meeting the standards, she reports. "If every hospital worked to get magnate, we'd be in great shape," says Ms. Drenkard.

Surely, as more facilities achieve superiority, greater numbers of nurses assisted by the efforts of Health and Human Services, Johnson & Johnson and other organizations will enjoy gratifying jobs and continue to give sick people good care.

Goody L. Solomon is executive editor of Food Nutrition Health News Service in Washington.

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