SALT LAKE CITY — Several years ago, the state was bracing for a shortage of nurses. Anticipation of the aging baby boomer population was enough to generate panic throughout Utah, putting training programs in crisis mode.
Several state and private schools responded and graduated more registered nurses than ever before.
The state went from having 19,525 nurses in 2005, to 25,867 in 2011, according to the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.
"The nursing shortage has been temporarily abated," said University of Utah College of Nursing Dean Maureen Keefe. She spoke to the Rotary Club of Salt Lake City Tuesday, stressing the ongoing importance of nursing education.
Officials are cautious, however, in saying the need for worry is gone, because Utah's birth rate remains high and people are generally living longer.
In addition, in the ever-changing face of health care and ongoing reform, nurses are being asked to do more in providing for a growing number of patients. And new nationwide initiatives are requiring nurses to receive post-graduate education, up to 80 percent by 2020.
Post-graduate education puts many in line to become educators themselves.
"The economy has pushed a lot of nurses back into the workforce, but it is not over," Keefe said. "As the economy recovers, a lot of nurses are planning to retire."
Nationally, it is estimated that a third of the nursing workforce is planning to retire within the next five to 10 years, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. In Utah, 37 percent of nurses are between 45 and 59 years of age.
At Utah schools, Keefe said students are welcome to enter nursing training programs at any age. The U. also offers an accelerated program for professionals who already have a degree in a different field, but who want to enter nursing. Together, state and private schools in the state graduate about a thousand new nurses each year.
Sixty-six percent of those nurses are employed at Utah hospitals.
"Nurses have a huge contribution to make in the primary care setting," Keefe said. As nurses see more patients and spend more time at their side, education becomes a big deal.
Utah was one of 15 states asked last year to develop a statewide initiative to implement innovations in education and health care practices. As part of the Utah Action Coalition for Health, the state's health care systems are facilitating residency training for nurses, and making them a part of the discussion on ongoing reform, among other efforts.
Even though the concern is not apparent, Utah remains the most short-handed in the country. In 2003, there were 592 nurses for every 100,000 people in the state. Today, there are 598 per 100,000, about 300 fewer than the national average of 854 per 100,000, according to the Utah Nurses Association.
Keefe said it is all about directing those nurses to the appropriate modes of delivery.
Mobilizing the nation's more than 3 million nurses, she said, is essential in helping to lower costs, improve quality and increase access to health care.