Nurses will leave big shoes to fill

Ann Ziegler, a registered nurse in Whidbey General Hospital’s critical care unit, assists a patient during her shift at the hospital. - Stephen Mercer
Ann Ziegler, a registered nurse in Whidbey General Hospital’s critical care unit, assists a patient during her shift at the hospital.
— image credit: Stephen Mercer

For years, patients at Whidbey General Hospital have enjoyed a large staff of experienced nurses to help provide medical treatment for everything from the flu to heart surgery.

However, the effects of having a stable job force has left administrators wondering about future staffing levels as nurses near retirement over the next several years.

“The average age of a nurse at the hospital is 46 years old,” said Jacque Scott, a chief nurse executive with Whidbey General Hospital. She added that the hospital will only add additional nurses when new programs are prescribed, the north and south Whidbey clinics expand or other changes demand additional staffing. There are currently 179 nurses working at Whidbey General.

The real problem is not a current nursing shortage, but finding a way to replace those presently working at the hospital. Scott said administrators estimate a 15 to 20 percent turnover in the nursing staff within the next few years.

Replacing general care nurses is not the concern as the hospital receives a steady stream of newly-graduated nurses daily. The spouses of military personel stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey also provide services if they have medical training.

It is replacing an experienced nurse — including those who specialize in emergency or critical care — which administrators are most concerned about. Because of the demand for experienced nurses all over the country, it takes an average of two months to replace each nurse, according to Carolyn Pape, Whidbey General’s human resources director.

The main reason in that baby boomers, which make up a large chunk of the country’s population, are getting older. Whidbey General Hospital must compete with other hospitals nationwide to find experienced To bring nurses to relatively small Whidbey General, the hospital must make the jobs attractive. Nursing pays higher than the average wage of approximately $14 an hour in Island County, from $20.11 an hour for newly-hired nurses to $35 an hour for nurses with 20 years experience.

It is the extras that the hospital offers that will allow the nursing staff to keep pace with patient numbers. Pape said it is the hospital’s small size and rural character of Coupeville that gives Whidbey General an advantage. Nurses on staff can also cross-train in specialty areas outside their normal training, something that she said rarely happens at larger hospitals.

Pape said training and education programs put in place at Whidbey General Hospital in the last few years will provide a “pipeline” to enticing new nurses with the chance to train in specialized programs. This allows the hospital to move experienced nurses already working at the hospital into specialized positions in the event of a vacancy, she said.

Five nurses at Whidbey General Hospital were trained for critical care nursing positions in the past year, Scott said. Previously, one nurse typically completed critical care cross training each year.

Registered nurses at the hospital complete a two-year program; licensed practical nurses must complete a year-long program.

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