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Nursing the industry back to health

AP Photo Becky Romero, a nurse at Platte Valley Medical Center in Brighton, stands for a portrait Thursday in Denver. Romero, a member of the Service Employees International Union's nurse alliance, said fewer nurses are taking care of patients who are sicker than when she first started working in an ICU in the late 1970s. She fears stress and "demoralizing" conditions will drive more nurses away from patients' bedsides.
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DENVER – Nurse Becky Romero can’t forget the man she cared for more than a year ago in the intensive care unit at a Brighton hospital. He was an alcoholic with an inflamed pancreas and he was getting worse.Romero was also responsible for two sedated patients on ventilators, who required lots of monitoring and hands-on care – feeding, providing fluids and medication. But she also kept being pulled to the other man and made several calls to doctors for help. By the end of her 12-hour shift, he was placed on a ventilator and Romero left work in tears. A few days later, he died.”I have that haunting feeling if I hadn’t been so busy, could I have been a little more proactive? Could I have kept him off that ventilator?” said Romero, who works at Platte Valley Medical Center.Romero, a member of the Service Employees International Union’s nurse alliance, said fewer nurses are taking care of patients who are sicker than when she first started working in an ICU in the late 1970s. She fears stress and “demoralizing” conditions will drive more nurses away from patients’ bedsides.There is a shortage of nurses working in industrialized countries around the globe but Colorado is facing a shortage that’s estimated to be nearly twice the national average. The number of nurses falls short of demand here by about 12 percent – compared to 7 percent across the country, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics.By 2020, the gap in Colorado is expected to grow to 31 percent.

“There’s no single reason for it and there’s no single solution,” said Paula Stearns, executive director of the Colorado Nurses Association.Colorado lawmakers are looking at a variety of proposals they say could help, from forgiving loans for nurses who choose to teach the next generation of caregivers to forcing hospitals to disclose their nurse-to-patient ratios.Stearns’ group is mainly concerned about Colorado’s shortage of nursing faculty, which is three times the national average. There are people interested in becoming nurses but the lack of teachers means they have to wait up to two years to get into a program.A decision to teach nursing can mean a $20,000 pay cut at a time when nurses are also being lured away from hospitals to jobs in doctor’s offices, health insurance companies and pharmaceutical sales. Those jobs can offer better pay and hours and less stress.Stearns said hospitals are also being asked to loan out nurses to serve as teachers, paying their salaries and benefits while they train new nurses.But Romero and the union say training more nurses won’t do any good if they end up getting frustrated and leaving the profession. They also claim that if one-sixth of the nurses who are working outside hospitals could be drawn back, Colorado’s nursing shortage would disappear.

The union also says hospitals are making huge profits and should disclose how they’re spending their money, including how many patients each nurse cares for. They argue the public has a right to know the information because that ratio affects the quality of care.The hospital industry views the proposed “transparency act” as a ploy to unionize nurses. SEIU, the nation’s largest union of health care workers, doesn’t have any bargaining units in the state.Larry Wall, president of the Colorado Health and Hospital Association, said hospitals already disclose a lot of information about their finances. He said hospitals support releasing “quality-related information” to the public and they back a bill that would require them to report how many patients get infections during their stays.Romero, who was lured away to work in the insurance industry twice during her 28-year career, said the legislative push isn’t about making more money or doing less work but trying to improve care.For example, she said less harried nurses would be able to take the time to wash their hands in between patients and cut down on infections rather than running from bed to bed.”We want good people at the bedside to help others and to help ourselves,” Romero said.



Colorado Nursing facts and figures• In 2002, the federal Health Services and Resources Administration said Colorado was one of 30 states where a nursing shortage was already evident. Previously, officials believed the shortage wouldn’t become a problem until 2007.• The number of registered nurses grew at a faster rate than the state’s population between 1988 and 1996, but by 1999 the population growth rate was double the growth in nurses.• Nursing vacancies in the Denver area declined from more than 1,600 to 1000 between 2001 and 2003 during the state’s economic slowdown, but that predated plans to open five new hospitals in the area.• The mean age of nurses is 47, slightly higher than the national average.


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