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Updated 10:00 AM February 13, 2006




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School of Nursing addresses shortage of nurses, faculty

For a number of years nursing schools have been working to recruit more people to the field to address a critical shortage of health care professionals. Now programs like the School of Nursing are facing a different problem—a shortfall of those who teach the new professionals.

In response to a shortage of nurses in clinical settings, U-M boosted enrollment from about 450 to 600 students two years ago and ramped up its program for people interested in nursing as a second career. Just as Nursing has expanded to accommodate more students, however, about half of its faculty members have reached retirement age.

Nursing Dean Ada Sue Hinshaw says the graying of the nursing work force is a huge challenge. As baby boomers grow older, so do nurses, with an average age of nearly 50 and relatively fewer nurses under age 30.

"All of that makes us very vulnerable," she says.

So Nursing set out to tackle the faculty shortage by offering staged retirement to its senior faculty, allowing them to stay involved in research longer, while also gaining more free time.

The school also is working to encourage more nurses to pursue the educational track. Traditionally, nurses who wanted to earn advanced degrees got their bachelor's, worked for a few years before getting a master's, then worked a while longer before pursuing a doctorate, Hinshaw says. At that rate a tenure-track professor might be 50 when she got her research program going. Then just about the time funding and results got moving, it was time to retire.

To address this dilemma, the school has looked for new ways to get students into the master's and doctoral pipeline, including a fast-track program that leads directly from bachelor's work through to a doctorate. About half of students who enroll in the Nursing second-career program go on to earn a master's degree. "We're trying to open up the ways we bring people in," Hinshaw says.

Once students are on a faculty track, Nursing pairs them with senior faculty for teaching and research, giving the students experience, and helping the faculty get more done, Hinshaw says.

It's not that fewer people are choosing nursing as a career.

"There are more nurses in the country today than there have ever been," Hinshaw says. "The problem is, there are more opportunities than ever before so the need is much greater."

Besides hospitals and clinics, nurses also are in demand in assisted living facilities, insurance companies and home care agencies. "There's no reason to be bored in nursing today," she says.

Hinshaw has been a national advocate on the nursing shortage issue and contributed to an Institute of Medicine report about working conditions. Research shows that if there aren't enough nurses with experience working in a clinical setting, patients are at greater risk.

Instead of catching symptoms early and treating them before they escalate, it's likely patients will develop more serious health concerns—urinary tract infections, pneumonia and the like, Hinshaw says.

Understanding the value of nurses makes Hinshaw dedicated to addressing the shortage.

"You can't substitute for nurses," she says. "You can't decide you just won't have them."

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