"Missouri has a fairly large number of licensed nurses," said Emily Featherston, Missouri Delta Medical Center's vice president of nursing. "But the majority of those nurses are either not working, or they're finding work in places other than the hospital."
Featherston wasn't kidding. A January survey of registered nurses, conducted every four years, said of the nearly 2.7 million nurses in the United States, nearly one in five isn't actively participating in the field.
Nursing shortages are currently a hot topic in Congress. Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a measure with goals of relieving the nursing shortage by offering scholarships and grants to nurses and helping hospitals with retention. The House of Representatives agreed to the Senate amendment, and at press time, the bill was cleared for the White House.
"At Missouri Delta, we've been very fortunate," Featherston said. "Our nurses are dedicated and have a willingness to support the staff. They cover shifts, work longer hours and float to other floors when needed."
Of course there are days, when working extra shifts can become tiresome, but the majority of Missouri Delta's nurses are happy in their job, Sue Speakman, medical floor nurse manager, said. But, she added Missouri Delta's nurses are always there for the patients.
"Nurses work hard," Speakman said. "I think those who work in hospitals gain a lot of knowledge and a broader background because they're exposed to more."
Government officials have said if current trends continue, the nation will face a shortage of half a million nurses by 2020. The January survey showed that the nation's nursing corps is aging; in 1980, 26 percent of registered nurses under were under the age of 30. In 2000, the figure was below 10 percent.
The bill authorizes more loans for nursing students, but requires them to work at least two years in a facility with a nursing shortage. It also establishes grants to train nurses to care for the growing elderly population and gives health facilities grants to help with nurse retention. Nurses seeking advanced degrees can also qualify for expanded loans the bill provides, but they must agree to teach other nurses.
On the local level, Missouri Delta has provided monetary incentives and implemented a clinical ladder so nurses can grow in their role, Featherston said. As nurses develop their career expertise, their salary increases. Several nurses are continuing their education by taking extra classes or receiving certification, she said.
Featherston is a member of Southeast Missouri's Coalition Nursing 20/20. Education and services are working together to identify the problem and promote nursing as a career.
Featherston is also a member of the Missouri Hospital Association, which has been addressing the shortage by working with the congressional bill over the past two years.
"We want to increase the number going into the field," Featherston said. "A lot of people tend to forget that nursing is also a male profession."
According to the January study, nursing school enrollments are dropping as well, which is why high schools are offering health programs to their students.
"Sikeston High School offers a health occupations program," Featherston said. "Through this program, Missouri Delta hires high school students as nurse aides or employs them as PRNs. It's an excellent way for them to decide if they want to continue to pursue the career."
Schools are currently seeking ways to improve the recruitment strategies for prospective students. Students have to have a special feel for the profession in order to be a nurse, Featherston explained.
Missouri Delta has been more proactive, she said, which is why she doesn't foresee a nursing strike in the near future -- a topic of discussion at many hospitals. Featherston thinks a strike is unlikely, but at the same time, it's something unpredictable.
"I think most nurses find it distasteful to leave the job," she said. "Nurses care more about helping the patients than about the money. "
Some information for this story was supplied by the Associated Press.