Shortages plague Health Center staff

Last Thursday, an unforeseen shortage of staff almost forced the Health Center to temporarily close its doors.

“Due to a rare, unfortunate coincidence regarding staffing, the Health Center will be closed from 11 p.m. Thursday, May 1st until 7 a.m. Friday, May 2nd,” said Ruth Harrison, director of Health Services in an e-mail notifying students of the occurrence. However, the Health Center was eventually able to secure the necessary staff in order to remain open for its normal 24-hour services.

The injury and illness of the registered nurse who was scheduled to work from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. prompted the decision to close the facility. Harrison said that there must be at least one registered nurse at the Health Center in order for it to be open. After learning of the nurse’s illness, the center contacted other regular staff members asking them if they would be able to work during the Thursday night shift. When these staff members could not commit to the shift, the center then turned to its supply of per diem nurses – nurses who have full time jobs elsewhere but who also fill in at the Health Center when needed.

Harrison said that after calling all these nurses, “each one had either said they could not work or had not answered. It was getting late in the day and I needed to notify the campus.” She then sent the e-mail informing students of the brief closure and advising students who might require medical attention to go to the North Adams Regional Hospital.

After sending the e-mail, one of the per diem nurses contacted the Health Center and said she was available to work the night shift, whereupon Harrison sent a second e-mail with news that the facility would indeed remain open on Thursday night.

Nancy Roseman, dean of the College said that such issues with staffing are an “ongoing problem” at the Health Center. However, in most cases, regular staff members or per diem nurses are available to work during the vacant shifts. In an effort to relieve this problem, Harrison is constantly working to increase the Health Center’s pool of per diem nurses.

Nevertheless, increasing this pool is a difficult task due to the unfavorable timing of the night shift. “It is very hard to find properly trained medical professionals, particularly people who are able and willing to work the night shift,” Roseman said.

“The night shift is the most difficult to staff,” Harrison said. “There are not many nurses who choose to work nights, and since there is such a shortage, they can usually pick shifts. Also [working] nights is a challenging shift. There is one nurse with a clinical aide – that’s a lot of responsibility. Our nurses are very well qualified and I will not hire one that is not.”

To complicate matters even more, Harrison said that there is a “rather dramatic shortage of registered nurses across the country.” According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 2,558,874 licensed registered nurses in the United States. Of these 2,558,874 registered nurses, 62.7 percent are over the age of 40. The aging of this particular group is one of the factors currently contributing to the widespread shortage of registered nurses, since an increasing number are opting to leave the workforce.

“Another reason that has been suggested for the shortage of nurses is the increasing demands of the field,” Harrison said. “Nursing is a very challenging profession and often undervalued. Recently, salaries for nurses have improved, but perhaps not always commensurate with their job responsibilities.” Roseman added that Harrison “has worked extremely hard trying to improve this situation.” She added, “Unfortunately, we cannot simply clone properly trained nurses.”

She also noted that Harrison and others at the Health Center are constantly working to improve staffing issues in order to ensure quality medical assistance and uninterrupted health service.