News item: McKay-Dee Medical Center will pay a bonus of several hundred dollars to any employee who recruits a nurse.

When the Deseret News reported the newest twist in McKay-Dee's nurse recruitment effort this summer, it was done in a light-hearted way, calling the employee bonus a "bounty" on nurses.While no one has resorted to calling in a bounty hunter yet, the state's mushrooming nurse shortage underscores the need for creative, immediate action to prevent tomorrow's crisis. And a crisis - that overused word so easily attached to any problem - will be the actual result if nothing is done today.

It was a year ago that the Utah Nursing Resources Task Force made headlines with the bleak prediction that by 1990 there would be a 20 percent shortfall, or a reduction of 2,000, in the number of registered nurses in the state.

At one hospital, that could translate into a lot of nurses who won't be at a patient's beside. (Of course, hospitals have to close beds if they aren't adequately staffed.) Donna Vogel, nurse recruiter for the state's largest hospital, the 520-bed LDS Hospital, says she has openings for 40 qualified registered nurses, right now.

"That includes nurses in management, clinical nurses, nurse specialists and staff nurses," Vogel says.

LDS Hospital, like the state's other hospitals, recruits heavily out of state. In fact, about half of the state's new nurses every year come from outside Utah.

But Linda Amos, dean of the University of Utah College of Nursing, points out that Utah cannot expect to staff its hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, health maintenance organizations, home health services, health departments and physician offices with nurses educated out of state.

The supply is dwindling as interest in nursing education lags elsewhere. Today, fewer little girls dream of becoming a nurse when they grow up. The smorgasbord of careers now open to women has cut heavily into the pool of students seeking a nursing career - except in Utah.

The demand for nursing education continues to outpace the space availability at Utah's institutions of higher education. Amos says the U. and the state's other nursing programs have two or three qualified applicants for every available slot.

It seems logical then that one way to increase the supply of Utah nurses would be to educate more nurses. Recognizing that very fact, the State System of Higher Education tried to get $400,000 in new money for nursing education from the 1988 Legislature, but despite intense lobbying by health-care groups, the request was not funded.

The issue didn't die when the session ended, however. In July, a special session adopted intent language that said the Board of Regents should develop plans to increase the number of nurses.

Then on July 20, the Health Interim Committee urged $500,000 "be given to the Board of Regents to be distributed among the nursing schools to enhance the nursing programs in the state."

Throughout the summer, the regents have struggled with how to do just that, and they plan to make a recommendation Oct. 19. They have a formidable task, considering the funding requests from WSC and the U. of U. alone for expanding their nursing programs add up to almost $1 million.

In settling those funding questions, the regents will have to also decide such thorny policy issues as whether to continue or expand WSC outreach programs on community campuses or to establish stand-alone programs at the willing community colleges.

Of course, whatever the regents decide, the resolution will rest with the Legislature. It would be simplistic to think that the nurse shortage can be cured by just boosting the number of nurse graduates. Salaries, working conditions, scheduling and management practices also are contributing factors in the complex issue.

But a first step toward a solution would be more money to educate nurses. Utah can't afford to let another year slip by.