New career opportunities help curb nursing shortage

By Ira Strumwasser, Executive Director and CEO BCBSM Foundation

December 7, 2009

DETROIT - The H1N1 flu epidemic continues to spread through Michigan at an alarming rate—according to the Michigan Department of Community Health, over 500,000 state residents have contracted the virus and 41 people have died from influenza since September.

Nurses have been on the front line of this pandemic, working diligently to keep up with the demand for vaccinations, health assessments and patient care. But future health crises may run rampant if we cannot recruit and retain nursing personnel.

According to the Michigan Center for Nursing, there will be an estimated shortage of over 8,000 nurses by the year 2018. That's 8,000 fewer nurses available to work in clinics, staff phone lines and provide emergency room care.

An aging workforce, the physical demands of the nursing profession, and a lack of educational options are all contributing to a long-term nursing shortage. Sixty-five percent of Michigan's nurses are between the ages of 45 and 64; of these, 31 percent are over 55. As the economy improves, many of these older nurses are expected to retire.

Efforts are underway to keep nurses in the field. Nursing for Life: the RN Career Transition Program, developed by the College of Nursing at Michigan State University, is helping build and retain Michigan's nursing workforce. This educational program extends the length of a nursing career by helping experienced nurses transition to nursing roles in community-based settings like long-term care, home care, hospice, and ambulatory care.

Since the program was piloted in 2008, 45 nurses have enrolled in Nursing for Life and many have made the transition to new care settings. Nursing for Life is a joint project of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation and the College of Nursing at Michigan State University. It is one of several projects sponsored by the Partners Investing in Nursing's Future program, an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Northwest Health Foundation. These efforts encourage local foundations to develop grassroots strategies to stabilize the nursing workforce nationwide.

Coordination of health care to meet the demands generated by sudden emergencies is no small feat. When the health care system is burdened by disasters or outbreaks of disease, successful crisis management relies heavily on registered nurses (RNs). Nurses are on the front line in Emergency Departments, offices and clinics, performing triage duties and providing care for patients.

With mass retirements looming, educators, philanthropists, and business leaders must continue to work together to increase the ranks of qualified RNs in Michigan. The reality is that if we don't work together now, health care will suffer.

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