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U-M effort tackles nursing shortage, reaching out to state

  • Contact Joe Serwach

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—A University of Michigan initiative is tackling the nation's nursing shortage by reaching out to discouraged nurses and the large number who left the profession without considering a host of other uses for their nursing skills.

With a rapidly aging population, growing demand for health care and national nursing turnover rates nearing 14 percent, the demand for nurses has been high. Just 2 percent of licensed nurses are unemployed and seeking employment in nursing, further fueling shortages, according to Michigan Center for Nursing data.

And yet, 15 percent of Michigan's 119,991 Registered Nurses and 19 percent of Michigan's 27,143 Licensed Practical Nurses aren't working as nurses, a vast pool of talent to whom
U-M's Center for Professional Development and Mentoring is reaching out. The goal? Keep talented nurses from leaving the profession and lure back in more suitable roles some of the large numbers who left.

"The pipeline is broken," said Marietta Van Buhler, the center's program manager and research administrator. "There's such a huge demand that nurses can find jobs before they graduate from school, but that also means they're less likely to embrace the concept of professional development, to ask themselves whether they explored the 'right fit' within the profession."

The vast majority—92 percent—of Michigan's licensed RNs are women, meaning that there is a greater likelihood they may step out of the profession at some point to start a family. Over time, they may lose confidence in their skills and may not know how to approach re-entering the profession, Van Buhler said. She noted that nursing tends to attract people who "have a hard time stepping out of the role of helping everyone else to focus on helping themselves."

Margaret Calarco, senior associate director of patient care and chief of nursing services at the U-M Hospitals and Health Centers, was awarded more than $1.5 million in federal research grants as part of the effort to establish the Center for Professional Development and Mentoring as one component of improving nurse recruitment and retention and enhancing patient care delivery.

One of the grants sets a goal of reducing nurse turnover and vacancy rates by 5 percent a year for five years. The ultimate goal, Calarco said, is "to improve patient outcomes by supporting nurse recruitment and retention."

Since the center opened in November 2006, more than 3,000 individuals have visited its Web site and about 150 current, former or potential nurses have called, written or visited the center seeking advice.

Nursing turnover rates also have begun to improve in the highly vulnerable "first year" nurse within the U-M Health System, moving from 25.9 percent in fiscal year 2002 to 22.7 percent in fiscal 2006.

Professional development "needs to be a life-long initiative," Van Buhler said. The center, she added, helps nurses touch base with colleagues, review career options, find a mentor, seek career coaching and pursue legacy development and networking opportunities to prevent job burnout and fatigue that can lead health care professionals to give up on their careers.

"There's been no soft-landing place for them," Van Buhler said. "They don't consider a systematic approach to professional development, problems mount and finally they give up. We try to help before they get to that point. We sit down with them, look at their skill sets and what they like and dislike, and help steer them in the direction where they excel.

"Going back to school may be an outcome of their career review and planning and is why the University of Michigan School of Nursing is an ideal collaborator on this grant. We may direct them to our onsite BSN program or encourage them to consider other advanced education. Given that part of today's nursing shortage is attributed to a shortage of nurse educators, this may have a two-fold effect in stemming the tide."

The center is open to student nurses, U-M Health System nurses as well as anyone considering a career in nursing or returning to the field.

Nationally, about 58.3 percent (1.7 million) of the total nursing population was working full-time in 2004, almost 25 percent (724,544) were working part-time in 2004, and 16.8 percent were not employed in nursing, according to a national survey conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration.

"The nursing shortage is a complex and multi-faceted economic challenge," Van Buhler said. "Hopefully the center will be seen as one of many initiatives needed to turn this dilemma around."