- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

Local hospitals and medical centers are offering a variety of incentives to hire and retain nurses, while schools are offering scholarships in an effort to combat a growing national nursing shortage.
Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore last week began to offer a $10,000 bonus package to experienced operating-room nurses and to Mercy employees who refer new operating-room nurses to the hospital.
The hospital previously succeeded in recruiting nurses through a similar sign-up bonus in December 1999 for nurses in labor and delivery, oncology, surgical service and the emergency department. The bonus program typically last three months.
The hefty sign-up bonuses come at a time when the nation is suffering from a nursing shortage, with 11 percent of nursing jobs being unfilled last year, according to the American Hospital Association. That translated into 126,000 open positions.
Nurses are aging as many move past their mid-40s and start to think about retirement. Meanwhile, patients are getting older and sicker.
The demand for nurses is so great that the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by the year 2008, jobs for registered nurses will grow by 23 percent, meaning that the need for nurses will grow by 450,000 positions.
"It will really all come to a head in 2010, when there will be an estimated 200,000 more positions available than there would be nurses," said Karen Drenkard, chief nurse executive at Inova Health System, which owns five hospitals in Northern Virginia.
Inova has been offering sign-up bonuses since the mid-1990s. Last year, it also started an effort to retain nurses by allowing them to earn promotions given by their peers rather than by their bosses. In a four-step program promoting shared governance, nurses could earn a 6 percent pay raise for their work.
Miss Drenkard said there have been 91 such promotions since the summer.
At Inova, where the nursing-vacancy rate last year varied from 6 percent to 15 percent at its hospitals, recruitment efforts also include summer camp activities with young children. The company also sends nurses to talk to high schoolers, all in an effort to attract youths to the field.
The staffing shortage at Washington Hospital Center in the District was even higher, at 22 percent in recent months, said Yakini Cowans-Martin, a nurse and labor advocate with the D.C. Nurses Association.
The hospital is still recovering from a 7-week strike in fall 2000 that led to the departure of several hundred nurses. About 15 of them have returned to the hospital and new nurses have been recruited, but the staffing levels are still inadequate, Miss Cowans-Martin said.
She said sign-up bonuses in the Washington region average $4,000 to $5,000, with recruits getting half at the end of their probationary periods and the rest at the anniversary of their starting dates.
To help combat the shortage, health care product maker Johnson & Johnson last month started a $20 million national advertising campaign addressing the country's severe nursing shortage under the slogan "Dare to Care."
The ads, which use real-life nurses, will run for two years, advertising not only the profession, but also available scholarship funds and recruitment brochures and videos for 20,000 high schools and nursing schools.
Debbie Rowe, director for staffing services with Genesis ElderCare, a nursing home chain with 25 facilities in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, said scholarships worked the best to attract new nurses.
"We believe in growing our own," she said.
Genesis in the past three months has awarded 28 scholarships at $3,000 each, in exchange for an agreement from the recipients to work for the company for at least a year after graduation.
Sign-up bonuses also are offered, Mrs. Rowe said.
Universities also are heavily recruiting. At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, no new techniques have been employed, but the existing ones have been revved up, said Sandra Angell, the School of Nursing's associate dean for academic and student-support services.
"We are placing ads in places where we think they will have more effect locally and nationally," she said. "We've placed ads in college newspapers, a variety of professional journals."
Although enrollment in nursing schools nationwide had been dropping for years, schools are reporting a slight increase in applications for fall. Admissions officials are attributing this to the raised awareness of a nursing shortage, but also to the sluggish economy, which has prompted many recent graduates to further their education while waiting out better times.
September 11 also has played a role, said Michael Bergin, executive director of the School of Nursing and Health Studies at Georgetown University.
"Post 9-11 we're seeing a lot of interest," he said.
Georgetown's undergraduate program has had an 11 percent increase in applications. But the university's second-degree program, which allows students with bachelor's degrees to earn a second degree in nursing in just 16 months, is getting even more attention, he said.

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