PUBLISHED: 2:57 PM on Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Critical care catch-22
Four-year-old University of Alaska program brings some relief
It's a collision hard to avoid: With Alaska's nurses aging and baby boomers turning gray themselves, the state's nursing crunch looks like it will become worse.

But a four-year-old program run by University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Southeast hopes to slow the region's deficit.

In mid-December UAS and Bartlett Regional Hospital held a special ceremony for seven new graduates of the nursing program.

Five of them have accepted jobs at Bartlett.

They'll help ease the hospital's current nursing shortage.

The capital city is feeling the effects of a countrywide shortage. By 2014, the nation will need 1.2 million new and replacement nurses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Two reasons for the shortage: young people have many options and are not enrolling in nursing school fast enough to meet employment demand. What's more, there's a dearth of nursing educators and some institutions have to turn away prospective students, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Eric Hotchkiss, Bartlett's interim director of Human Resources, says it will take about six months to train the new hires. Even after they're up-to-speed, the hospital will still need to fill nursing positions.

"Right now we're deficient on eight to 12 positions. The five nurses that we're hiring will put us in the position that we'll only be down about four," he said.

Hotchkiss points out that Juneau's aging population is generating a greater need for healthcare.

Also, the hospital's staff is growing older and eyeing retirement. A 2003 study prepared by the state Division of Health Sciences found that the average age of an Alaska nurse was 46.

Nurses surveyed said they planned to work another 13.7 years, on average.

Fewer nurses have affected the way medicine is practiced at Bartlett. Dr. Bill Palmer has worked as a physician in Juneau since 1973.

He said three decades have brought many medical advances, but today the hospital doesn't perform certain high-risk procedures due in part to staff shortages.

"Even though we might have the technology to do things we couldn't 20 years ago, sometimes we don't have the nursing personnel to cover it," he said.

The Juneau graduates bring the tally to 17 newly registered nursing graduates from Southeast.

Ten UAS-Ketchikan nursing students graduated earlier this year. All plan to practice in Ketchikan, according to UAA officials.

State healthcare industry and university officials formed a task force to look at Alaska's nursing shortage in 2001.

They developed a plan to double the number of nursing grads to about 220 by 2006.

Their outline called for growing UAA's School of Nursing and boosting distance delivery courses for rural students.

"We've doubled the number of nursing graduates statewide and would be looking to do more, but there's a limiting factor to how many nurses can train at the healthcare facilities we have. It's a dilemma," said UAS Dean of Career Education Karen Schmitt.

She says Bartlett can only train 10 nurses at a time so the program in the capital city is limited to that many students. Much of the training of new graduates is handled by existing nurses and the hospital can't afford to move many of them without sacrificing patient care.

More aggressive measures may be needed to generate interest in nursing in Alaska.

According to the most recent projections by the Health Resources and Services Administration, a division of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, there will be a 42 percent deficit in the number of registered nurses needed to meet demand in Alaska by 2010.

That's the worst projected shortage in the nation during that time period, after Wyoming.

In some states where deficits are straining healthcare systems including Delaware, New Mexico and New Jersey, nurses are being poached with higher salaries and better benefits.

So far most nurses trained in the UAS-UAA program are choosing to stay in the region. "We're not seeing a large exodus once students get their degrees," Schmitt said.

This year's Southeast nursing graduates are set to take their National Council License Exam in Anchorage early next year.

A new class of students will begin in January.