KOLD INVESTIGATES: Arizona taking steps to end nursing shortage

Published: Dec. 23, 2019 at 5:03 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It’s no secret Arizona needs nurses.

Nichole Pelan is a charge nurse in the emergency room at Tucson Medical Center. She’s been a nurse for almost nine years and loves her job.

The shortage in Arizona isn’t insignificant -- it’s twice as bad as for the states that came in second-worst.

KOLD News 13 set out to find out how bad the nursing shortage really is in Tucson and what’s being done about it.

“You see them at their worst, but you also get to see them at their best when you take care of them very quickly and send them out the door feeling better,” Pelan said.

Arizona needs more nurses like Pelan.

"It actually is shocking to me that there’s a nursing shortage here,” she said.

Pelan said she hasn’t felt the effect of the nursing shortage at TMC, but we know it’s being felt in many places across the state, especially in rural areas. Fixing the problem starts in the classroom and it’s not as simple as just accepting more nursing candidates into university programs.

Students Sarah Terlizzi and Samaria Gregorio said the standards to get into nursing programs are high.

“I feel like it was really hard,” Gregorio said. “From the beginning, I was always told if you don’t have a 4.0 you don’t have a chance.”

Money is also a problem.

“There’s just not funding for the schools to teach that many people,” Terlizzi said.

Dr. Jessica Rainbow, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Nursing, said if we want more students in the classroom, we don’t even need to lower the standards. Across the nation, programs are turning away qualified students.

Last year, 75,000 students who qualified to go to nursing school were turned away because there weren’t enough faculty, according to Rainbow.

She said there aren’t enough facilities.

“I think that it’s something that needs to be addressed, probably with grant money,” she said.

UA leaders are doing a few key things.

They’re increasing the size of nursing programs where they can and they’re accepting people from other degree programs into an accelerated nursing program.

“We also have recently started an integrated health bachelor of nursing science which is a registered nurse track looking at integrated health. That’s in Gilbert,” Rainbow said.

She said another factor is what other states are doing to entice candidates away from Arizona.

“If you’re a nurse here, (you) would often have six patients you’re responsible for during a shift," she said. “In California, that’s limited to five patients and you’d make more money and you’d actually get breaks. Those are all things that would potentially make you more interested in moving.”

Rainbow and the students agree it’s important to make working in Arizona more appealing so students don’t graduate and leave.

“I don’t necessarily think the pay is as good as other states,” Terlizzi said.

With so many baby boomers retiring, leaving empty nursing jobs and so few new nurses graduating, it’s becoming exceedingly difficult to fill open positions.

This creates what Rainbow called “the wisdom deficit.”

“If you think about the fact that some of these baby boomers have been nurses for 40 years plus, they have a lot of wisdom,” she said. “If we shift completely to we just pump out all these new nurses, they may not have the wisdom.”

As baby boomers retire, it puts more strain on those who are left behind, causing more to quit.

While Arizona struggles to teach and keep nurses, Pelan said it’s important to remember these new nurses may not have experience just yet, but they do have something special to offer.

“They bring technology and they bring new practices,” she said. “So, I think the collaboration between older nurses and new nurses is something that I think is only going to help us grow as a profession.”

Copyright 2019 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.