Alliance Takes Aim at Va. Nurse Shortage

Nursing students Christine Bloomstrom, left, Autumn Authier and Amanda Smith attend a NoVa HealthFORCE conference on the health-worker shortage.
Nursing students Christine Bloomstrom, left, Autumn Authier and Amanda Smith attend a NoVa HealthFORCE conference on the health-worker shortage. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Aymar Jean
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2005

Several Virginia colleges, hospitals, philanthropic groups and legislators announced yesterday that they have joined forces to fight a stark and worsening problem: a shortage of health care workers, particularly nurses.

The group, called NoVa HealthFORCE, has developed a four-year, $24.3 million strategy aimed at increasing the numbers of registered nurses, nursing educators and other health care workers, constructing training facilities and streamlining nursing workloads with new technology.

The group issued a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers detailing the gravity of the situation. Alliance members said the shortage is a public health issue that threatens health care costs and quality -- for instance, longer lines in emergency rooms -- in the state.

"We're just at the beginning of the challenge unfolding," said Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College and chairman of the alliance.

Several institutions have pledged money to the cause.

Inova Health System pledged $800,000 to be used for all of the initiatives. The Northern Virginia Workforce Investment Board pledged $500,000 toward vouchers and low-interest loans for aspiring health care students. Area hospitals have pledged $500,000 for scholarships, some for nursing, some in other fields. Kaiser Permanente pledged $55,000 in grants to NVCC for an online nursing education program to be launched this fall. The Meyer Foundation pledged $25,000 to train low-income adults for entry-level health care positions.

Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, promised to push for $19 million over the next three years for the community college and George Mason University to expand their nursing and health care programs.

The Northern Virginia Technology Council, a regional trade association, promised to use its tech business membership to find new, efficient ways for nurses to do their jobs. And Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale proposed a career exploration program to inform students about opportunities in health care professions.

Geraldine Bednash, executive director of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, said the coalition is especially significant because of its pledges of money to schools and students.

"The effect will be long-lasting," said Bednash, who is not affiliated with HealthFORCE. "We need to produce a lot of nurses" to replace those who are retiring.

Many nursing educators are also set to retire, making it more difficult to train new nurses. And local schools don't have the capacity to accommodate those who seek admission, medical educators said.

"We have a very strange situation here. We have unfilled jobs, and we have unemployed people," said Alan G. Merten, president of GMU. "But we don't have the capacity to train these people."

Demographic trends will exacerbate the problem, nursing professionals and educators say. As the general population and nursing workforce age and retire, the demand for these workers will increase even as their numbers dwindle. The area's population is also increasing, especially in outer counties such as Prince William and Loudoun.

GMU and NVCC both want to fill new facilities in Loudoun and Springfield, respectively. GMU hopes to enlarge its accelerated program, which gives nursing degrees to individuals who already have bachelor's degrees. The school also has an accelerated program for master's degrees, which could train more educators.

Retaining current nurses, only 10 percent of whom are younger than 30, Bednash said, is also a challenge.

The shortage has meant longer hours for nurses, making the average salaries that range from $43,850 to $55,980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, seem inadequate. While technological innovations may make nursing more efficient, they also require training.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company