Editor's note: The following story continues a series of reports on the issues and concerns before the 1991 Legislature, which starts its 45-day session Monday, Jan. 14.The nursing shortage is so acute in rural Utah that one hospital administrator considered posting a giant classified ad in the sky.
"I thought about renting an airplane with a big banner that says: `Help!' " said Jeannine Best, vice president for professional services at Monument Valley Hospital. "A year ago, I was looking great. Now I have a 50 percent shortage. I have concerns if I lose one nurse, I'm going to have to close."That's a problem for the isolated Seventh-Day Adventist hospital, located on the stark, scenic Navajo Indian Reservation near the Utah-Arizona border. The next medical facility is 90 miles away.
Less isolated is the Tooele Valley Regional Medical Center, located just west of the Wasatch Front. But Trudy Curtis, director of nursing, said her facility is also short-staffed. "Basically, if eight registered nurses walked through the door, I could hire all of them."
Nationally, talk of the nursing shortage sounds like old news, a chronic problem as easy to ignore as the drought in California or muggings in New York City.
But Utah's medical personnel shortage has a unique spin. Hospitals are begging for help, while students are queuing up outside classrooms at every nursing college in the state. Three students wait for every opening in the nursing program at the University of Utah, while four wait at Weber State University.
Utah's real shortage is the lack of nursing educators, according to Laura Poe, lobbyist for the Utah Nurses Association.
Reps. Paula Julander, D-Salt Lake, and Joseph Moody, R-Delta, have teamed up to co-sponsor two bills that they hope will ease the problem:
- House Bill 24 proposes establishing a fund of nearly $200,000 in scholarship money to encourage nurses to return to school for graduate training in needed specialty areas or education.
- HB42 proposes establishing a $200,000 school loan repayment program to nurses who would agree to work for two to four years in designated rural areas.
"We see the need, and this is the action we're taking," Poe said. The benefits of the loan repayment bill would be immediate, while the scholarship bill would be a future investment.
Both nursing bills were modeled on a package passed by the Legislature last year designed to encourage doctors to relocate in rural Utah. The doctor loan-repayment bill was funded; the scholarship fund wasn't.
Sen. Stephen Rees, R-Salt Lake, said last session's bills seem to have generated interest among doctors, and he said the nursing bills should do the same. "We think that the loan repayment plan that we created for doctors is going to have a beneficial impact, especially in the rural areas."
Poe said the nursing bills need support, because the personnel shortage, which has plagued Utah for five years, is getting progressively worse. And the call-ups of reservists with Operation Desert Shield just make providing medical care more complicated, especially outside the state's urban pockets. Like in Tooele.
Curtis said she thinks more funding will help, but help is needed immediately. "It will take a while to get into the process. I would hope it would down the road."
"We're already overtaxing our nurses with the extra shifts they have to pull, the back-to-back shifts.
"I don't know where we'd be if we didn't have those moonlighters."