Nursing the demand – Texas ranks highly in nurse preparation

( Taylor County ranks seventh in the ratio of registered nurses to its population, a fortunate circumstance that several health experts said was good news.

That favorable ranking doesn’t mean that the work in training nurses for the future is anywhere near over, said Jo Rake, vice president of nursing at Hendrick Health System.

There will be a huge void created, for example, when nurses who are baby boomers begin retiring, she said.

But it does, in Rake’s opinion, show that the area is doing a good job in offering sufficient educational options for those who want to become nurses.

“Many of the places that have lower numbers or better ratios are places where they have schools of nursing,” she said, after examining the state’s data. “We have expanded our educational facilities here in Abilene for nursing, and I think we are beginning to see some of the payoff for that.”

The number of registered nurses working in Taylor County has seen steady growth since state record-keeping began in the late 1970s.

In 1978, the first year for which figures are available, the county’s population of 108,313 had to make do with 293 registered nurses, a ratio of one nurse for every 370 people.

In 1989, the number had grown to 646 RNs, improving the ratio to one registered nurse per every 186 people, with a countywide population of 120,305.

By 2001, with a population that had grown to 125,066, numbers had improved to 1,204 RNs in Taylor County, a ratio of one nurse for every 104 people.

Ten years after that, in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, Taylor County’s population of 131,663 was served by 1,528 nurses, improving the ratio to one nurse for every 86 people.

Statistics on the ratio of population to the number of RNs are updated yearly and come from the Texas Board of Nurses, said Chris Van Duesen, assistant press officer with the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The Institute of Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have set goals of 80 percent of the nation’s nurses earning bachelor’s degrees by 2020.

Currently, the national average of bachelor’s degree-prepared nurses is 50 percent, according to a recent statement from Texas Tech University and Cisco College. Texas is below that average at 37 percent.

The need for more registered nurses is expected to be driven by a number of factors, said Pearl Merritt, regional dean for Texas Tech Health Sciences Center School of Nursing in Abilene.

“According to the Texas Center for Nursing Workforce Studies, the number of people age 65 or older will number 70 million by 2030,” she said, a prime force driving such need.

Projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that more than 581,000 new RN positions will be needed, due to the retirement of nurses and an increase in the number of health care jobs available, she said.

“So it is imperative that nursing schools continue to grow to meet the demand,” Merritt said.

Options Available

Taylor County has a number of current and upcoming options for nursing education including: a recent partnership with Cisco College and Texas Tech University to help licensed vocational nurses attain associate degrees; the venerable Patty Hanks Shelton School of Nursing, a consortium agreement among Abilene’s three Christian universities that offers a variety of degrees; and a new, upcoming stand-alone nursing program at Abilene Christian University.

Tech is building — with the help of Hendrick Health System — a large facility for its nursing programs next to its School of Pharmacy.

Annette Smith, dean of instruction at Cisco, said that the number of nursing school options in the area makes Abilene an education and health care hub for the Big Country.

“It’s all about choices,” she said. “Typically, our nursing students graduate planning to continue their education while working, and Abilene offers them many different options.”

Rake said that Hendrick, which employs between 650 and 675 RNs throughout its system, has benefited greatly by having local educational options available from which to draw workers.

In an email, Jessica Kiehle, chief nursing officer at Abilene Regional Medical Center, and John Jeziorske, the hospital’s human resources director, said that it is not often that ARMC needs to go outside of the local area to fill vacant RN positions.

“In rare cases, there is a need for nurses with specialized skills that we cannot find locally,” the email said.

On average, the hospital has 250 RNs on staff at any given time, the pair said, a number that excludes medical assistants, nursing assistants, and licensed vocational nurses.

Alesha Bolton, 28, a registered nurse with Hendrick Health System, said that she felt there was “room for more” RNs in Abilene and in the Big Country.

“Right now, there are so many opportunities regarding education,” she said. “Unfortunately, there is still a huge nursing shortage. So, no matter how many programs and university [opportunities] there are, we’re just not putting [RNs] out fast enough.”

But for those suited to its long hours and hard work, she said, the career is “honestly one of the most rewarding fields out there.”

Bolton, who graduated from the Patty Hanks Shelton School of Nursing, found her calling when she changed her major from education to nursing and “never looked back.”

“Every day, you know you made a difference,” she said.

Such a difference could be as big as saving someone’s life, she said, or as simple as taking the time to listen to patients talk about how they feel, whether about their diagnosis or life in general.

Those interested in a career as an RN should prepare themselves for strenuous coursework, she said, adding that students should also shop around for universities or programs that fit with their own personal ethos.

“You have to stay motivated and positive and not be afraid to ask for advice from instructors and peers,” she said. “Perseverance is key, as is faith.”

And they need to ask themselves realistically if this is a career that they really want to pursue, she said.

“It’s about taking care of people at their best of times, and their worst of times, too,” she said. “That’s the honor and privilege we get to deal with on a daily basis.”