Scholarships help address nurse shortage

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As a global nursing shortage has forced countless medical facilities to limit and even cut vital health care services to their patients, officials at Yampa Valley Medical Center are working hard to keep the impact of the shortage as far from Routt County as possible.

An innovative scholarship program and an in-house training program are just two ways the Steamboat Springs hospital and health care facility is addressing its current and future nursing needs.

"We're really trying to do something to help ourselves instead of wringing our hands and saying, 'Oh, there's a nursing shortage,'" YVMC spokesperson Christine McKelvie said.

A variety of social and cultural trends, as well as population changes, are the root causes of the nursing shortage, YVMC Chief Nursing Officer Linda Casner said. And even the high quality of life in the Yampa Valley isn't enough to attract and retain qualified nurses in Routt County, she said.

So YVMC has taken the matter into its own hands. YVMC officials are focusing on two aspects of the issue: recruitment and retention.

The medical facility recently developed a scholarship program that, although available to students pursuing their interests in a variety of medical fields, has thus far focused solely on nursing. Under the provisions of the program, people interested in becoming registered nurses can apply to YVMC for acceptance into the scholarship program. Accepted students receive tuition assistance in exchange for a commitment to work at the facility upon the completion of their degrees. "What we do is offer support for people to obtain a nursing education," Casner said. "It doesn't matter (what school they attend). We give them money to support that education."

Once hired by YVMC, the nurses receive the same salaries as other new hires, and they're expected to fulfill the contract they signed with the hospital.

"We forgive the loan, so to speak," Casner said.

Fifteen people are currently enrolled in the scholarship program, and 17 more are on the waiting list, she said. While some of the participants are Routt County residents, the program has attracted attention from outside Northwest Colorado.

"I've had people calling up from across the country," Casner said. "It's absolutely wonderful."

Funding for the program has come from proceeds from the 2003 and 2004 Ski Town USA Golf Classic and Benefit Auction, but there's no guarantee that money will be dedicated to the program in future years. "I don't have a current source of funding beyond what I've already pledged to people," Casner said.

YVMC is yet to reap the benefits of the program because none of its students have graduated from their nursing programs. "This is a long-term strategy," Casner said. But it won't be long before the 100-nurse YVMC staff is bolstered by new hires from its scholarship program. The medical center is currently short nine full-time nurses. In addition to the scholarship program, YVMC has established a training program whereby its in-house registered nurses can receive the training needed for certification as operating room nurses. The program has graduated three classes, including four nurses who finished their certifications in June.

The training program is particularly important for YVMC because operating room nurses and labor and delivery nurses tend to be the hardest nursing positions to fill. YVMC plans to begin another round of training this fall.

YVMC also continues to be a training facility for nursing students who attend the University of Colorado, Regis University, University of Northern Colorado and Colorado Northwestern Community College.

Providing students a training facility not only helps prepare the next generation of nurses for professional work, but also serves as a recruitment tool for YVMC, Casner said. Recruitment is one aspect of addressing the nursing shortage, retention is another.

Casner said providing a good working environment is key to retaining good nurses. YVMC offers a new and beautiful facility, excellent medical equipment, a positive workplace culture, good nursing/physician relationships and a good nurse-to-patient ratio, Casner said.

The hospital also offers its nurses flexibility in terms of changing departments and expanding their skill levels.

In the end, Casner and others hope the forward-thinking efforts of hospital officials will prevent a critical shortage of nurses in Routt County.

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