Changing Gears
11:11 am
Wed March 2, 2011

Health care students face long wait lists (Part 1)

Nursing is a hot career.

The federal government says the field will create more new jobs than any other profession this decade — almost 600,000 jobs by 2018.

But there’s a bottleneck.

Schools in our region can’t keep up with all the people who want to become nurses or other health care workers.

In the first of two stories, Changing Gears is examining some of the high tech tools schools are using to help ease the training crunch.

Emily Morris is 24. She’s from Michigan and always wanted to be a nurse, but was turned away from an increasingly competitive four year program.

So in late 2008, she applied to the nursing program at Schoolcraft, a community college in Livonia, Michigan.

She says she was told to report for class more than two years later. 

In Michigan, Emily Morris would have spent more time on a waiting list than in her nursing program.

“At that point, I was so discouraged and so frustrated,” she said. “The waitlist … I mean there’s nothing that could discourage me more.”

But she didn’t give up.

While she waited for the fall of 2011, Morris finished her nurse aid certification. She worked in real estate and even on a dude ranch.

She says she kept checking the list, but never got bumped up,“not enough people dropped out I guess.

Finally, a hospital in West Virginia offered Morris a job and the chance to attend a nearby school with no waitlist.

She took it, even though it meant leaving Michigan. 

“It’s the only career field that I could really see myself being happy in for a long time,” she said. “And I know that it’s good job security. It’s just that getting there is very frustrating."

So why the wait?

One of the big factors is a shortage of qualified nurse faculty.

But it’s also a finite number of hospitals and other clinical sites where students can train.

Every future nurse, every physical therapy assistant and every radiology tech has to spend time with patients. 

Katherine Howe says it's important to protect patient safety while educating new nurses.

Katherine Howe is associate Dean of Nursing at Henry Ford Community College. At times, there have been more people on the waitlist there than in the two-year program. 

Howe says patient safety is key. There are limits to the numbers of students that teaching hospitals can safely accommodate. 

“Is it really fair to have one group of students there for eight hours,” she asked, “another group of students there for another eight hours, and then even on midnights and weekends?” 

Craig Morea is training to be an occupational therapy assistant.

Many health specialties experience clinical shortages, not just nursing.

At the Crestmont Healthcare Center in Fenton, the occupational therapy room is bright and cheerful and looks like a conference of grandparents, in wheelchairs. This facility only takes one student at a time. 

For two months, that student was Craig Morea.

He’s a second year student at Mott Community College, training to be an occupational therapy assistant.

On the last day of his rotation here, Morea was warming up the shoulder of an elderly patient, Shirley Teffner. "This sounds crazy but I fell out of bed,” she said. “And when I fell, I hit on my shoulder.”

Shirley Teffner tucked her weak arm close, the way a bird favors a broken wing.

She likes Craig Morea.

He’s gently coached her to get out of bed by herself again. 

“The joy that I could see in her face and her smile,” he said, “it was very rewarding, to me.”

It’s also a crucial part of his education. 

So the question remains: How do schools safely get more students like Craig Morea into more clinical settings like Crestmont

A few years ago, a group in Oregon asked itself the same question, and it came up with a web-based tool called StudentMAX. The tool matches nursing schools with open clinical sites.

While faculty used to arrange rotations through old fashioned relationships and tons of inefficient calls and emails, they now just enter their needs online.

Versions of the software have been deployed in the greater Cleveland and Chicago areas, as well as southeast Michigan.

Here, the tool is reported to have helped open up about 20% more clinical slots. 

Still, clinical space is a finite resource. So some nursing programs are making greater use of simulation — as in high tech dummies that sweat, speak and even give birth. 

We’ll bring you that story in our next report.

Changing Gears is a public media collaboration between WBEZ, Michigan Radio and Ideastream in Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.