The bad economy might make it seem as if there's no shortage of nurses in central Ohio, but experts say the situation is temporary.
"We are seeing nurses who might have been considering leaving the profession, ready to retire, and they're not doing that," said Janice Lanier, deputy executive officer of the Ohio Nurses Association. A recent report from the Health Policy Institute of Ohio projects that Ohio is one of three states, along with Texas and California, that will have the greatest need for nurses in a decade.
Researchers expect Ohio to be short 32,000 nurses by 2020.
Besides an aging population with more chronic medical conditions, impending health reform could mean that 1.3 million uninsured Ohioans will have insurance.
"They can start coming into (medical) practices, and what's that going to do to the demand on getting in?" said William Hayes, president of the policy institute. "We have to be ready for the need."
Advanced-practice nurses, including nurse practitioners, could provide newly insured people with primary medical care.
"Just because we don't have the shortage hitting us over the head every day now, we should not take it off the policy plate," Lanier said.
There are more than 2.4 million registered nurses in the United States, making it the largest health profession. The average age of an Ohio nurse is 47, and the median age of a nursing faculty member is 51.
Nursing schools still have waiting lists, but that's because there are not enough faculty members to train future nurses, experts say.
Plus, some local hospitals aren't hiring nurses the way they did a few years ago because of the economy.
Sarah Strohminger, a junior at MedCentral College of Nursing in Mansfield, said she knows of nursing graduates who could not find work in Mansfield or Columbus.
Strohminger, president of the Ohio Nursing Students' Association, said she plans to work as a patient care assistant at MedCentral to get her foot in the door at the hospital.
Ann Schiele, president of the Mount Carmel College of Nursing, said all 160 nurses who graduated from there in May have found jobs.
"It may not have been their first position of choice, but by August every student that I was aware of had a position," she said.
Ohio State University Medical Center, which hasn't made the cutbacks that other local hospital systems have, continues to hire nurses, including at least 140 new graduates every year.
"There is not a shortage in central Ohio of new grads, but there will always be a shortage of specialized nurses," said Karen Bryer, director of medical-center recruitment at Ohio State.
Specialized nurses include those trained to work in intensive-care and neonatal units, and advanced-practice nurses such as nurse anesthetists.
Schiele expects the local hiring lull to end in about three years, and then there will be an immediate need for nurses. By then, aging faculty members will be retiring.
"It's all very important that we get the funding to educate the faculty in the master's and doctoral programs," she said.
That's where state officials could come in. The state could help pay off student loans or provide grants, tuition assistance for nurses who want to teach, or a refundable tax credit for nursing faculty members.
There have been some state policy moves to address the shortage.
These include changing the Nurse Education Assistance Loan Program in the state's budget bill this year to forgive student loans of nursing master's students who teach nursing at an Ohio school, Allison Kolodziej, Gov. Ted Strickland's spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail.
Lanier said policymakers shouldn't wait until hospitals complain that there aren't enough nurses.
"There's nothing worse from a patient-safety perspective than having an entire floor staffed with brand-new nurses," Lanier said. "You need to have that mix."
By Suzanne Hoholik, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
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