SPECIAL REPORT: RETAINING NURSES - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings


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Hospitals and nursing homes across the country are facing a growing problem.

There's a shortage of nurses, greatly affecting the healthcare industry.

According to Sara Schmitz, a Licensed Practical Nurse in Dubuque, the lack of nurses makes it a nonstop job. "Some days, caring for 50 plus residents and one of you, it makes it tough to meet everybody's need in the same demeanor," she said.

So many patients -- not enough nurses.

The demand staggering. More than one million newly registered nurses will be needed by the year 2022, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At Sunnycrest Manor, the long term care facility owned by Dubuque County, they're already seeing the impact of the nursing shortage. "We might not have the time to paint their nails, or to just even sit and listen to their stories and different things like that," said Marni Schmit, nurse manager.

The facility is short staffed. At the moment, they have 12 nurses, but should have 17. "I don't feel like I'm giving them the quality care, attention that I need, and it's just hard some days to face that I'm working short," Schmitz added.

A factor in the shortage is aging baby boomers and retiring nurses.  The American Nurses Association says more than 500,000 of them are estimated to retire within the next five years.

Chief Nursing Officer, Mary Peters, of Finley Hospital in Dubuque said hospitals aren't immune. "When our patient volume, our patient census increases on some of those units where we do have like holes in the schedule, we don't have enough nurses hired for those units...we will reach out and use temporary or traveling nurses, agency nurses to fill those slots." 

Some will pick up extra shifts to fill the void, already stressed and exhausted. "They're working the overtime, they're getting denied vacations because there is no staff to cover them. You know that leads to burnout, leads to work injuries," Schmit said.

Nurses admit it can even lead to medical errors.

"We have so much responsibility on our license, and if we're short, we're more susceptible to making error, and that error could be life threatening," added Schmitz.

Healthcare experts have said another reason for the shortage is there are more options for nurses pulling them away from the clinical setting.  

So what's the remedy?

According to experts, educating more nurses might help, but nursing programs tend to be competitive, with long wait lists -- some up to two years.

At Northeast Iowa Community College, it's much less. "There is approximately a one semester wait list. Once the prerequisites are complete, we accept 36 students each semester into our first nursing course," said Lisa Frasher, nursing instructor at the Peosta campus. 

When it comes to the number of students admitted into nursing programs, it correlates to the number of instructors who can teach. State guidelines determine the student to faculty ratio.

Well aware of the struggle, Kayli Carroll, a nursing student said she's looking forward to bringing comfort to the sick. "It makes me nervous, it makes me worried about experiencing burnout a little quicker."

Despite the fact she needs to take the state nursing license exam, she's had a job lined up for months -- a result of the shortage, weighing in her favor. "I feel fortunate that I'm coming into the nursing field in this situation, because I got hired before I even graduated. I got hired before I've even taken my boards, and that's pretty rare."

Upon passing the exam, Carroll starts her new gig at Mercy Medical Center in Dubuque, this summer.

"I gravitate towards caring for others, that's really where my heart is at. I also really love, and respect, now that I've been through school, the amount of knowledge nurses have."

In addition, nurses we spoke with said another problem is the pay. Iowa is one of the lower paying states for nurses, resulting in some choosing to commute into Illinois or Wisconsin for a better salary.

Meanwhile, administrators at Allen College in Waterloo mention many other careers in healthcare are also facing shortages. Some of them are occupational therapists, also ultrasound and lab science technicians.

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