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Paging Nurses…

Amid shortage, schools turn away applicants

June 10, 2009, 12:00 am

Unless more young people take up nursing, a lot of baby boomers will have trouble finding someone to hang their IVs and feed them their meds.

Last year, according to the New Mexico Board of Nursing, there were 1,181 licensed registered nurses in Santa Fe County. Nearly two-thirds of them are 50 or older and facing retirement.

Only 54 Santa Fe RNs are under the age of 30.

This could be a problem for more than just boomers. A decade from now, New Mexico hospitals will be able to meet less than two-thirds of the demand for nurses, according to federal estimates.

A big part of the problem is training—or a lack thereof.

“Quite simply, we need to educate more nurses or we, as a nation, will not have enough trained nurses to meet the needs of our aging society,” US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, said last week on the floor of the Senate. “One of the biggest constraints to educating more nurses is a shortage of nursing faculty.”

The city’s only state-approved nurse-training program, at Santa Fe Community College, has more applicants to its nursing program than it can accept.

“There is something of a waiting list,” SFCC Media Relations Director Todd Eric Lovato says.

The college now has 32 students enrolled in its traditional nursing program, out of the 50 who applied last fall. That means one in three applicants were turned away, most of whom failed to qualify.

Five applicants are on a “call back” list, meaning they’ll be admitted if anyone drops out of the two-year program. But that’s unlikely, as Lovato says the nursing program’s retention rate is approximately 96 percent.

A separate program for would-be nurses who already have bachelor’s degrees has seven students enrolled with room for one more, Lovato says.

“For the first time, we had less people meet the qualifications than we had slots for,” Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs Ron Liss says.

The next opportunity to apply comes this September. Any students accepted in that round won’t be able to attend until next spring, when the college expects to debut its new health and sciences building. Previous applicants do not necessarily have advantages over first-timers.

“We take the top people that qualify each time,” Liss says.

Last week, Bingaman cosponsored the Nurse Faculty and Physical Therapist Education Act, intended to help colleges hire and retain more nurse instructors. Bingaman first introduced the bill in 2007, but spokeswoman Jude McCartin says it was “not a priority of the previous administration.”

The bill would, among other things, provide for 10 competitive grants of $100,000 each for nursing programs to hire and retain faculty, beginning this year. That’s peanuts as far as the federal budget is concerned, but it could do a lot for small schools.

“I have an opening for a 12-month position that I can’t fill because we don’t pay enough,” SFCC Nursing Education Department Director Kathleen Matta says. The University of New Mexico, which is also hiring nursing instructors, can pay more, Matta says. And as Lovato notes, qualified nursing instructors can often make more money working as nurses than as teachers.

Liss says SFCC would “absolutely” like some federal money. However, with five full-time faculty, Liss says the nursing program is “fully staffed.”

“We don’t know that if we grew, we’d have enough applicants,” he says.

Santa Fe’s 20-somethings are not lining up to make nursing a career. Matta says the average age of SFCC nursing students is 35. Fresh high school graduates are not often prepared for the nursing program’s prerequisites.

“I’m not bashing the school system, but students need remediation in English, math and science. It takes them a while to do that,” Matta says.

Indeed, the quality of nursing graduates statewide is uneven.

New Mexico fares ninth-worst in the nation when it comes to student pass rates on the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses. In the first three months of this year, 35 of 227 New Mexico students failed the exam. In Rhode Island, the best state, only five of 154 test takers failed.

Through 2007, the last year for which the state Board of Nursing published numbers, only six of 16 New Mexico nursing schools met the 80 percent pass rate required by state law. That year, SFCC fell just below that line—a dramatic drop from its 94 percent pass rate in 2006.

Nevertheless, a nursing license is a meal ticket in this economy. “You may not get the job you want,” Matta says, “but there are jobs out there.”


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