Nursing shortage hitting home in Craig

MRH, Northwest Colorado Health share the struggles that come with being short-staffed and the efforts they’re taking on to try to change that

Memorial Regional Heath nurse Jacie Jourgensen prepares to take a patient's blood pressure at the Craig hospital Tuesday afternoon. Nurses have been in short supply as a national nursing shortage hasn't passed over the Yampa Valley, and nurses like Jourgensen are working extra to make up for it.
Courtesy photo / Memorial Regional Health

For hospitals and healthcare providers across the country, a shortage of essential nursing staff is putting a strain on healthcare systems. For providers in the Yampa Valley, it’s the same story.

Rebecca Forney, chief nursing officer at Memorial Regional Hospital, said MRH currently has five nurse openings in the ER and another six in med-surg. In the surgery department, there are three open positions. Without those filled, the ER at MRH is running on five full-time nurses plus a manager, 11 PRN (or as-needed) nurses and five travel nurses. Med-surg has six full-time and a manager, eight PRN and three travelers. In surgery, the hospital has three open positions, but that department also has full-time and part-time staff.

To combat the effects of the shortage, Forney said that current staff often float between departments when necessary.

“We do a lot of floating,” Forney said. “If there’s not a lot in surgery, they move and help in the ER. We also put our schedules out a month in advance, and in any open shifts, anyone can fill it if they’ve been trained for that department.”

According to the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence, 32% of nurses — or 21,000 — in the state are over the age of 55, and 4,500 active registered nurses are over 65. Over the next decade, the Center for Nursing Excellence estimates that about 2,000 nurses can be expected to retire annually in Colorado. Forney said that partnerships with local nursing schools can help, but when there aren’t enough going through nursing programs, it can create a “snowball effect,” especially when added to concerns about staff burnout.

“You have a lot of people leaving the field because of the state of the field,” Forney said. “People are aging out, and we don’t have the numbers to replace them. We don’t have enough on the education side, either. So there’s not enough to train the new nurses that are meant to replace the ones aging out.”

Memorial Regional Health's sign welcomes visitors to Craig's hospital.
Billy Schuerman / For the Craig Press

The Center also cites the state’s past reliance on out-of-state nurses coming to Colorado for job opportunities as having contributed to shortages in the state.

“If the state is to maintain its current capacity to deliver healthcare services, let alone expand it to meet a growing population and the demands of national healthcare reform, we must significantly expand the pipeline of new nurses,” a news release from the CNE reads. “Colorado can no longer rely on other states to educate our nurses, as it has in the past, but must develop sufficient internal capacity to meet the needs of Colorado residents.”

Because the nursing shortage is a multifaceted issue, a single solution What those solutions could be, Forney said, is a tough question.

“You still have to be aware of good, healthy work-life balance for staff,” she said. “They can’t spend all of their time at work. We need to find a balance for them and make sure that they’re taking care of themselves emotionally and physically. The whole state of healthcare (not just nursing) has been a little beat up over the past two year.”

Amanda Arnold, senior director of quality and human resources for Northwest Colorado Health, said that their system is down seven nursing positions. Like MRH, Arnold noted that building relationships with student nurses who are doing rotations with them is one way they are working to tackle the shortage.

She added that increased efforts to retain the nurses they have, plus working to recruit to fill those positions, has been part of Northwest Colorado Health’s strategy toward finding candidates to fill those positions.

“Our goal is to be an employer of choice, and we’re doing our best to match (candidates’ and current nurses’) desire,” Arnold said.

In the end, Forney said, it’s the job of providers to make sure that nursing and other health staff feel supported and appreciated in order to keep them in the field.

“Everyone is working a lot of hours, so we want to make sure that they are valued,” Forney said. “We make sure they do not come in if they don’t need to. As far as retention, we’ll be doing a wage analysis to make sure we’re paying our nurses what they’re worth.”

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