To help ease a shortage of registered nurses, University of Pikeville and Pikeville Medical Center have partnered to offer an incentive to keep nursing students in Eastern Kentucky.
Through the Rural Health Nursing Fellowship, students can earn their two-year associate degree from UPike’s Elliott School of Nursing and graduate debt-free by making a three-year commitment as a a licensed RN at Pikeville Medical Center. The fellowship will begin for nursing students starting in January.
UPike President Burton Webb said Thursday that the fellowship will remove all the financial barriers of becoming a nurse.
“Pikeville Medical Center and the University of Pikeville have a long history of working together to solve the health care and educational challenges that face Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia,” Webb said. “This partnership is another example of our two organizations coming together to solve the nearly intractable problem of not enough nurses in the region.”
According to Pikeville Medical Center President and CEO Donovan Blackburn, the hospital system employs about 900 nurses, with 650 being bedside nurses, and has lost about 200 over the past two years to retirement and the increase of traveling nurses.
Blackburn said there was a nurse shortage prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 has exasperated the problem.
Lately, hospitals nationwide have dealt with an influx of nurses working for recruiting agencies. Prior to the pandemic, travel nurses would generally have to travel for work. Now, it is different.
“What’s happening is they are recruiting our nurses and they are sending them across town, so nurses aren’t leaving home but they’re able to triple their rate unfairly, and it’s happening over and over and over,” Blackburn said. “As an administrator, I have to have nurses and staff, but I can’t be paying for that. If I’m bankrupt, I don’t have a hospital.”
Blackburn said salaries for travel nurses have inflated from $65 an hour to $200 an hour, which mostly benefits the recruiting agency.
He said he is starting to see the demand for travel nurses drop, but the hospital will have to address a nurse shortage because the turnover rate is about 140 nurses a year.
His solution is to saturate the market by increasing the number of nurses through the Rural Health Nursing Fellowship program.
Gov. Andy Beshear echoed Blackburn that the nursing shortage was heightened by the pandemic.
“This is above and beyond many of the normal programs we’re doing,” Beshear said. “It’s trying to find a way to help in the middle of a crisis.”
Beshear said he plans to work with the General Assembly to increase the caps on nursing education programs to increase the number of students and to raise the number of students to supervisors.
Blackburn said the Elliott School of Nursing facility can hold 200 to 240 students, but the nursing program has 80 nursing students, by going 20% over its cap of 60 students as allowed.
“I could use 200 nurses, but yet they are unable to teach them, because the program is outdated,” Blackburn said.
Big Sandy Community College has the same issue, he said.
“What you have is this group over here that is leaving the profession, but also what you have is the highest number of students that are applying for nursing schools,” Blackburn said. “The problem is you got caps. You’ve got all these leaving. You can fill them over here, but you can’t get them in. The legislators understand that. I believe they are going to address that.”
The governor also announced he would include a loan forgiveness program for nurses in his recommended budget.
Blackburn said if entities agree to pay for the nursing student’s debt, Pikeville Medical Center will offer a $10,000 stipend.
University of Pikeville will use up to 90% of its seats for the Rural Health Nursing Fellowship. Blackburn said not all students who graduate the fellowship and pass their certification boards will be guaranteed a job at Pikeville Medical Center, but the probability is extremely high. If the hospital does not hire the graduate within 60 days, the RN can go anywhere in the region and PMC will still pay their tuition.
Blackburn also said the program will be extended to nursing students entering into their second year and it is likely students who are graduating now will be offered loan forgiveness or the bonus.