Hospital Focuses on Attracting Nurses
By Amelia Harper
Staff Writer, Rocky Mount Telegram
Nurse Karley Sharpe, left, goes over Lou Cohoon’s discharge plan Tuesday at Nash General Hospital.
After facing severe nursing shortages over the past few years, Nash UNC Health Care is getting back on track by paying higher salaries and developing new recruiting programs to attract quality nurses.
Beginning salary for a registered nurse at the hospital is now $23.75 an hour, said Katie Davison, executive director for human resources at Nash UNC Health Care. Though raising salaries seems counter-intuitive when the hospital is facing a budget crisis, Davison said the new measures have actually not raised the overall employee cost by much and should pay for itself once the measures are in full swing.
In April 2017, the registered nurse vacancy rate at Nash UNC Health Care reached an all-time high of 17.41 percent. As hospital officials scrambled to find nurses to fill these crucial patient care positions, they had to turn to two primary short-term methods of filling in the gaps: hiring contract nurses and increasing the number of overtime hours that nurses worked. Both are expensive propositions, Davison said.
“At one point we had up to 70 contract nurses, which come at a huge cost,” Davison said. “The hospital had to pay an average of $43 an hour extra for these nurses when they worked.”
Contract nurses are nurses hired on a temporary basis through a hiring firm and they often travel from other areas to work here, Davison said.
Davison said the hospital had a hard time attracting and retaining nurses because it is in a rural county and the competition for nurses is tough all over the county.
“More nurses are heading for retirement and there is an increased demand for advanced placement nurses such as family nurse practitioner, which removes more nurses from bedside care,” Davison said.
Crystal Hayden, chief nursing officer for Nash UNC Health Care, said other factors come into play as well.
“There is an increased demand for nurses as the Baby Boomers age,” Hayden said. “And once we recruit nurses, we sometimes have trouble retaining them because they sometimes go to work in larger institutions once we train them.”
Hayden and Davison worked with other team members at the hospital to craft a new strategy with two main components: increase pay to a more competitive range and increase efforts to recruit top locally-based candidates from Nash Community College and Edgecombe Community College.
The hospital conducted a salary survey that resulted not only in giving most nurses an average of an 8 percent raise but also in increasing the salaries of 73 percent of hospital personnel.
The hospital also launched its Nash Nurse Scholars Program in 2017. Davison describes the program as “a partnership with Nash Community College and Edgecombe Community College that seeks to invest in and grow local nursing students.” The program offers a full scholarship and monthly stipend to select nursing students who commit to working at Nash UNC Health Care for two or three years after graduation, depending on the scholarship level.
“We see this as investment in both the future nursing workforce and in the local community,” Hayden said. “The nursing programs at Nash Community College and Edgecombe Community College are both excellent programs. And this program allows us to attract nurses who understand our community.”
So far, seven nurse scholars have joined the hospital’s staff and more are in the pipeline.
The measures to attract permanent nurses already have yielded fruit. The RN vacancy rate that stood at 17.41 percent in April 2017 had dropped to 12.43 percent by December of that year. Now, roughly a year later, the vacancy rate is 5.29 percent — better than the industry standard of 8.2 percent and exceeding the hospital’s own goal of 7 percent.
The measures also are positively impacting the need for expensive contract nurses.
“Maintaining low nurse vacancy rates also helps our financial improvement goals tremendously,” Davison said in a memo to hospital staff. “In Fiscal Year 2018, Nash employed more than 70 contract nurses to backfill our vacant nursing positions and to ramp up staffing during flu season, which cost the organization nearly $9 million for the fiscal year. This fiscal year, because our vacancy rate is much lower, we currently have only eight contract nurses on the books and are projecting to spend less than half of what we spent last year.”
Hayden said the efforts also benefit residents who receive care at the hospital.
“I think it ties into overall better quality care. When you have staff who are here long-term rather than the contract labor, we can continually educate them and improve quality measures. We are also making great strides in employee engagement so that the staff is happier to work here. And I think that translates into a better patient experience,” Hayden said.