Saint Mary’s officials credit proximity to Arkansas Tech, UACCM

As much of the nation and portions of the state deal with a nursing shortage, area authorities say the Arkansas River Valley has not experienced such a crisis.

The Associated Press reported in February a survey showed Florida is expected to have 15,000 vacancies in 2012 and can anticipate the shortage to grow to more than 56,000 by 2025. Roy Boland, Chief Nursing Officer for Saint Mary’s Regional Health System said Russellville’s proximity to two nursing programs has protected the area from similar shortages.

“The north central region of Arkansas has been shielded from some the most recent nursing shortages, largely due to universities such as Arkansas Tech and University of Arkansas Community College in Morrilto (UACCM) providing ongoing nursing education.”

Connie Gragg, Saint Mary’s Director of Human Resources, said the hospital is “truly blessed” to have a partnership with Tech and UACCM.

“Many nursing students perform their clinical rotations at Saint Mary’s,” Gragg said. “That gives us an opportunity to recruit some of the best and brightest nurses who share our values and understand our vision of providing quality care to our community.”

Dr. Rebecca Burris, head of the nursing department at Arkansas Tech, said the program operates at capacity and accepts all qualified applicants.

“The number of clinical facilities in the area limits us some, but we’re doing a good job of keeping up with the demand and providing RNs in the area,” Burris said.

At the state level, the Department of Workforce Services (DWS) recently announced a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to train more than 1,500 Arkansans to become nurses.

The project will train at least 1,500 individuals for careers in the nursing profession, which range from Certified Nursing Assistants and Licensed Practical Nurses to Registered Nurses and beyond. The project will target qualified individuals who are on waiting lists to enter nursing programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families participants, unemployed and dislocated workers, and those currently working in the health care field looking to further their education and credentials, especially those working in long-term care facilities.

DWS and the AWIB will partner with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges, Arkansas State Board of Nursing, Arkansas Hospital Association, Arkansas Health Care Association, Arkansas Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas Community Foundation.

Arkansas was one of 43 grantees who received more than $183 million in federal H-1B Technical Skills Training Grants. The overall goal is to reduce H-1B visas for foreign workers by educating and training Americans to fill those jobs. The RN and career pathway to becoming an RN were the focus of Arkansas’ grant application.

DWS Labor Market Information indicated the number of RNs will increase more than 27 percent in Arkansas by 2018. According to the health care industry, more than 1,500 qualified nursing applicants are turned away each year in Arkansas because of limited capacity. The main barriers to increasing the number of nurses include a shortage of nursing faculty and clinical opportunities. To address that, the project will use distance education technology to educate students around the state and develop a preceptor training program that will increase the number of preceptors, allowing clinical opportunities for students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. UAMS and the AATYC will be the primary sub-recipients of grant funds to carry out those roles.

UAMS will coordinate with the Arkansas State Board of Nursing to establish a statewide preceptor training and certification program in an effort to double the number of clinical opportunities available to students. UAMS also will provide distance education classes, recruit students and coordinate the participation of statewide Bachelor of Science Nursing programs and long-term care facilities.

UACCM, one of the programs which will benefit from the grant, is in the process of excelerating its practical nursing program so a degree may be completed in a calendar year. Instead of a summer term divided into two semesters, the change for nursing students would mean a continuous semester from May to July.

“It’s all about getting people out to the workforce as quickly as possible,” Mary Clark, chief information officer for UACCM, said. “Not many people need to be out of school over the summer anymore. And this will allow them to finish faster and work through the summer.”

Clark said the change, which still requires the approval of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, is expected to take affect in January 2013 and will add about eight graduates from the program per year.

Boland said the future will hold many challenges for the nursing field as Baby Boomers age.

“The shear number of individuals requiring quality health care will continue to put a significant strain on our nursing population and contribute to current and future nursing shortages,” Boland said. “The demand for nurses, as well as the demands on nurses, continues to grow. ”

Gragg said Saint Mary’s strives to provide continuing education to its existing nursing staff, offering tuition reimbursement to nursing and clinical staff who plan to become certified technicians, therapists or obtain their Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in nursing or healthcare administration, which will assist the hospital in meeting those challenges.

Evelyn Denton, President of Saint Mary’s Volunteer Auxiliary, said volunteers are key in assisting with the further development of the hospital’s staff.

“Growing our employees and helping people achieve their goals is a shared mission at Saint Mary’s” Denton said. “Volunteers are active in helping our hospital grow and retain our care givers by providing nursing and clinical scholarships to employees. Profits from our volunteer owned gift shop as well as various jewelry and bake sales, all go toward providing $500 scholarships to employees. We want to help ensure that well trained and highly educated caregivers are taking good care of our families, friends and neighbors.”

By Adam Sweeney for the Courier