Agreement aimed at reducing nurse shortage

PHOTO/Winn Mete/For the Journal
Health-care industry representatives and University of Alaska leaders have reached an agreement to remedy a statewide nursing shortage.

Demand for nurses increases nationwide An estimated 126,000 registered nurse vacancies were listed nationwide in 2000. By 2010 it is estimated that 687,000 nurses will be needed in the United States.The nursing shortage also extends worldwide. Alaska totaled 400 nursing vacancies in January 2001, according to a study by the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. The state Labor Department projects an additional 220 openings each year for nurses through 2008 due to increasing demand for services and retirements of existing nurses. State labor officials also predict a need each year for 30 licensed practical nurses and 49 nursing assistants.

SOURCE: University/Industry Alaskan Nursing Education Task Force report

A task force with academic and industry members has outlined a plan to double the number of nursing graduates from 110 each year now to about 220 by 2006.

The program calls for expanding the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Nursing and increasing distance delivery courses for rural students.

The 20-member task force met three times in the first quarter of 2002, finalizing its findings and strategy in April, and produced a report, said Laraine Derr, president of the Juneau-based Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

Derr applauded efforts by UA President Mark Hamilton to link the business and academic communities of nursing.

"The president of the university has been saying industry should drive the university, and the university should give industry what it needs," she said.

Alaska, like the rest of the nation and world, faces nursing shortages. The decision to increase nursing graduates is one way to meet demand. University leaders believe serving the health care industry is important, said Karen Perdue, UA associate vice president for health.

"President Hamilton has put a lot of emphasis on health," said Perdue, former state commissioner of health and social services. "(UAA) Chancellor (Lee) Gorsuch has placed a lot of emphasis on health. It’s clearly one of their priorities."

Alaska health care facilities had 400 nursing vacancies last year, she said. That number could climb to about 600 by 2008, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

"We are experiencing a serious work force crisis," Perdue said.

According to the report, the nursing shortage results from more career options now available for young people, a drop in nursing school graduates in the past 20 years, few pay increases in recent years, and difficult working conditions that often drive nurses away.

In Alaska an aging population requires additional nurses. Also, more residents now bring their elderly parents to Alaska for care, the report said. Rural Alaska has a greater nursing shortage, especially in the southwest and northern regions, the report said. The expansion would boost graduates in rural Alaska who would likely stay and work there, Perdue said.

"It not only doubles, but doubles in the right places," she said.

Rural Alaska has an untapped resource of potential nurses, said Vivian Lee, chief nurse executive for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. in Bethel. Attending school away from home is often inconvenient for them; some Alaskans do study outside their hometown but choose not to return there, she said. Also, patients would thrive under care from familiar community members, Lee said.

The Bethel area needs nurses and often imports them, she said. The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. employs more than 100 nurses and fewer than 1 percent are Alaska Natives, Lee noted.

In January the University of Alaska Anchorage started a program in Bethel to train licensed practical nurses, she said. LPNs complete an accredited academic or vocational program and work under the supervision of registered nurses. About seven students are learning clinical work at the hospital, studying in the classroom with a teacher and taking distance delivery courses. Graduation is in December.

To reach the goal of doubling graduates, efforts need to start next fall, UA’s Perdue said. Plans are to beef up the two- and four-year nursing programs, adding a summer session to the associate’s degree program, adding distance delivery sites at Bethel, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan and Sitka, and expanding existing distance delivery courses at Fairbanks and Kodiak.

The cost for the current program is $3 million statewide, Perdue said. Initial expansion costs would total about $1.3 million, she said. Currently, university officials are discussing sharing costs with hospital administrators, Perdue said.

At the university, plans are under way to recruit faculty and redesign the distance delivery curriculum, she said.

Other programs train nurses in Alaska.

The Alaska Vocational Technical Center will contribute 20 LPN graduates beginning in 2003, according to the report. Weber State College in Ogden, Utah, is expected to produce 24 registered nurse graduates every other year through 2005 and 24 practical nurses on alternate years. A registered nurse is a professional nurse who has completed an education program and has passed a national licensing exam.

The Weber State program traces its history in Alaska back 10 years, and helped push UA to developing its own distance delivery program, said one Alaska health care professional.

As a university faculty member in the early 1970s, Kathie Etulain has seen a need for RNs and LPNs in rural Alaska. She called universities from Western states, searching for a program to train nurses in Alaska. The Utah college agreed to work with the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka campus, she recalled.

Ten years ago, Weber State dispatched a nursing faculty member to live and work in Sitka. Other communities clamored for the program, which was next offered in Soldotna, then Fairbanks and elsewhere in Alaska.

Since then the Weber State program has switched to an Internet format with a clinical instructor and has added an associate’s degree program.

Demand still outpaced supply, Etulain said. Faculty and industry leaders told Hamilton there was a need to train more nurses and it would be best if the university had its own program, she said. "They are stepping up to the plate," Etulain said.

About 100 nurses have graduated from the Weber State program in Alaska in the past decade, she said. "Also, it provided the impetus the university has needed to develop its own program," she said.

05/18/2002 - 8:00pm