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Nursing shortage threatens rural health care

A recent report shows Southwestern Oregon is on the precipice of a crisis-level nursing shortage brought upon by increased access to health care, an aging workforce, and a lack of educational capacity to train new nurses.

Southwestern Oregon Workforce Investment Board (SOWIB) Program Manager Kyle Stevens alerted the board about the local impacts of the national nursing shortage.

The shortage, reported at SOWIB’s Aug. 16 meeting, more seriously affects rural areas like Curry and Coos counties, according to Stevens, and even higher shortages of nurse instructors exacerbate the problem by limiting the number of nurses that can be trained.

“SOWIB’s goal,” Stevens said, “is to increase training opportunities for nurses by increasing nurse faculty.”

The report projected a shortage of 6,000 nurses in Oregon by 2025.

The report said most nurses in Curry County were approaching retirement age, and their retirements will create openings far exceeding the number of locally educated nurses available to replace them.

Even if the two community colleges in the region, Southwestern Oregon Community College (SWOCC) and Umpqua Community College (UCC), graduated a projected average of 69 new nurses per year, Southwest Oregon needs 96 new nurses per year to fill openings from retirements and job growth, according to the Oregon State Board of Nursing.

According to Stevens, the problem is caused by the differences in salaries between care-nurses and nurse faculty.

He said faculty must earn a master’s or doctorate degree and have two to three years of clinical experience. Faculty often obtain these degrees at their own expense, and pursuing that level of higher education can take 10 years at a cost of $60,000 to more than $100,000.

However, faculty make an average of $10,500 to $38,000 less than registered nurses working in care settings, according to the Oregon Center for Nursing. This extreme pay inequity is the top reason why two-thirds of nurse faculty, despite reporting satisfaction with their jobs, consider leaving education.


The report said SOWIB had convened a diverse group of CEOs, executives, and other healthcare leaders from Coos, Curry and Douglas counties in August 2016 to create a plan to address these shortages.The group became the Southwestern Oregon Healthcare Industry Partnership (SOHIP).

Both groups are now embarking on a capital campaign, according to Stevens, to fund solutions to the area’s nursing shortage. They are borrowing from the Maryland model, he said, which aimed to alleviate a nursing shortage there by targeting the lack of nurse faculty.

Stevens said both SWOCC and UCC intend to expand their nursing programs, but the difficulty in doing so — as explained in his report — is the difference in pay between care-nursing and nurse faculty.

SOWIB’s pilot project, as presented, will offer practicing nurses incentives to enter teaching by closing the pay gap with merit-based fellowships.

Money for the project will flow through SOHIP to SOWIB, which will administer payout of the fellowships to avoid conflicting with pay scales established through collective bargaining agreements with the colleges.

Stevens said SOWIB planned the project as a three to five-year public-private partnership, stop-gap solution to allow stakeholders to develop long-term policies and legislation to address the problem.

After the pilot phase, a three-pronged approach to fix the pay gap through collective bargaining, tax credits and private investment is planned, he added.

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