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It could take a decade to rebuild nursing workforce in Indiana

Devan Ridgway/WTIU

Oni Thomas isn’t deterred by the current state of the nursing profession.

She was accepted into the Ivy Tech nursing program just as the pandemic was beginning two years ago.

“I know that a lot of people going into the profession were kind of hesitant, because they didn’t know what was going on,” Thomas said. “But really, it made me want to do it more, because I just wanted to help people.”

Thomas is entering a profession that already faced a worker shortage before the pandemic. Since early 2020, nursing has been hit particularly hard by the constant care of those suffering from COVID-19.

“It’s just people really working at full tilt for going on two years now,” said Brian Tabor, the president of the Indiana Hospital Association. “The mental strain of the increased mortality of what folks are dealing with. You have nurses who not only are taking care of very, very sick patients, but dealing with masking regulations on the floor and you’re picking up extra shifts. I mean, it’s just been so difficult.”

National studies show that one in five health care workers have left the profession since the pandemic began.

And a survey by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses reported two-thirds of intensive care nurses have considered leaving their jobs. By the end of this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates nearly a half million nurses will retire.

“I think fatigue, burnout, compassion fatigue,” said Montra Reinhardt, the dean of the School of Nursing at Ivy Tech in Bloomington. “I tell my students, you’re going to see people who are having the worst day of their lives. And when you do that every day, it takes a toll.”

Reinhardt has been at Ivy Tech since 1984 and said the demand for more nurses has been constant.

“But I think it’s gotten a lot worse because of the pandemic,” she said. “The need is greater because society as a whole is aging, which means the baby boomers need more health care and more extended care. So, we do need more people to take care of them.”

State Rep. Ethan Manning (R-District 23) is leading the push at the state level. He said 4,000 nursing jobs are now open.

“We’re going to need about 5,000 more nurses on top of that in the next 10 years to meet the demands of retiring nurses plus the existing need,” Manning said. “So, to do that, we have to have 1,350 additional graduates from our nursing schools each year for the next 10 years.”

Manning is the author of House Bill 1003. It loosens degree requirements, allows more simulation training, and lowers the number of required full-time faculty at a nursing school.

The bill passed through the House with near-unanimous support and is now in the Senate. Manning said he expects some amendments to address concerns of four-year universities and the Indiana nursing association, but nothing to keep it from becoming law.

“It’s been a problem for a long time, but it’s gotten even worse due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “So, I do anticipate in future years we’ll have more legislation like this. But this is a great first step.”

Those in the healthcare industry are happy the state is getting involved.

“We hope that House Bill 1003 can be the first step in really a moonshot approach to how we address our healthcare worker shortages,” Tabor said. “As far as big-ticket items and dollar amounts, I’m looking forward to next year when the budget is done. And I’m hopeful we’ll see some real investment there.”

Reinhardt said the bill would allow Ivy Tech to grow by more than the 25 percent it is currently capped at by the Indiana State Board of Nursing. And that’s not all

“We’re currently limited to no more than 50 percent part-time (faculty),” Reinhardt said. “So, it would ease that a little bit, allow for some more simulation and just help with recruiting and graduating.”

It could also open the door for more nursing students around the state. Reinhardt said Ivy Tech turned away 300 student applicants statewide last year. At the Bloomington campus, Ivy Tech has about 160 nursing students yearly.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity now for people to get into the field,” Tabor said. “But it’s a profession that requires a lot of training, so we’re doing what we can with some legislation here in Indiana and the Statehouse to try to help expand the pipeline.

“But the cavalry is not right around the corner; it’s going to take a little bit of time.”

Because of the shortage, nursing jobs are plentiful.

“We have so many employers who are asking, ‘Can we speak to your graduates? Can we come to your classes?’ More than we can actually accommodate,” Reinhardt said. “But our graduates always have jobs.”

About a third of Ivy Tech’s nursing graduates go on to a registered nursing program or to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

She said more than 90 percent of their graduates stay in the state for employment.

Ivy Tech also has expanded its programs to help fill nursing needs in more places than just hospitals.

“The military medic, the paramedic and the medical assistant, they’re very excited we’re offering those tracks, especially the military medic to ASN program,” she said. “The feedback we’ve gotten from our partners about that program in particular is that track may keep somebody in the healthcare field who normally might not have stayed in health care.”

Now a senior, Thomas says she’s eager to be part of a much-needed new wave of nurses.

“I know a lot of people are like, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” Thomas said. “But I’m just like, ‘Let’s go, let’s rebuild this, let’s get it great again,’ because nursing is such a great profession. And it’s always going to be needed.”

That’s true now more than ever.