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In Health Profession, College Is Bottleneck

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 25, 2006

Melanie Etnier heeded the call for health-care workers a few years back and decided she wanted to be a registered nurse. But when she went to sign up at Northern Virginia Community College, there wasn't any space for her, and she ended up waiting a year before she could take her first class.

"With all that you hear about there not being enough nurses or hygienists, I guess I didn't think there would be a waiting list or that it would be so difficult to get into a class for jobs everyone knows we need," said Etnier, 35, of Alexandria, now enrolled at the school. "You hear about the need, but then you show up and you can't get in. So it's not like people don't want to do the jobs. They just have no way of getting to them."

For years, experts in health-care fields have fretted that they won't be able to replace an aging generation of nurses, technicians, hygienists and other specialists. But what they're finding now is that lack of interest isn't the problem -- the ability to train students is. A scarcity of state funding, a shortage of trained instructors and limited space for clinical training have helped keep eager students from filling job vacancies that increase daily.

"The basic choke points are that our colleges and universities don't have the capacity to generate graduates," said Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, who oversees an alliance of some of the region's business professionals, health-care educators and public officials. "We generally have very high demand for people who want to enter these professions, and we have employers that are prepared to employ them. But our higher education institutions just simply aren't equipped to graduate enough trained professionals."

At NVCC last year, 150 students applied for dental hygiene classes, but the college had only 54 spaces available. For the nursing program, 258 students applied, but only 183 could start.

At George Mason University, which has the state's largest nursing program, the program routinely receives more than 600 applications for 200 slots, said Shirley Travis, dean of GMU's College of Health and Human Services.

The college has expanded some of its nursing teaching operations to its Prince William and Loudoun campuses, she added.

With more population growth expected and with an aging population that will need more health-care services, the area will face increasingly long waits for basic services, educators and other professionals said.

A study by a Northern Virginia health-care task force found that the Washington suburbs lack more than 2,700 health-care professionals, including registered and certified nurses, lab technicians and medical records specialists.

If this pace continues, according to the study, Northern Virginia will be short more than 7,700 professionals by 2010.

What's happening in the Washington region is also happening elsewhere. Across the country, training health-care workers is a major concern for state and local governments, as is finding enough classrooms and faculty to teach them.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing estimated last year that more than 30,000 qualified nursing students across the country couldn't enter professional schools because of a lack of capacity. In some states, the wait for entry into health-care programs can stretch to several years.

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