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Locals sound off on nursing shortage crisis

U.S. Rep. Latham hears concerns during Fort Dodge roundtable talk

March 27, 2008
By BILL SHEA, Messenger staff writer
It’s called a doctor’s office, but when a patient goes there chances are good that they’ll spend as much time with a nurse as they do with a physician. And in hospitals and nursing homes, it’s the nurses who provide the daily care.

Very soon, however, there may not be enough nurses to treat Iowa patients.

And those that will still be on the job may be exhausted by 12-hour shifts and frustrated by endless recordkeeping demands.

Facing what could be a crisis in their profession, a group of about 20 nurses took their concerns to U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Ames, during a gathering Wednesday afternoon at the Fort Dodge Public Library.

They suggested more federal student aid to help more people become nurses, and just as importantly, nursing instructors.

Also, they pleaded for some relief from regulations that have forced them to expend precious hours on charts and computers when they could be caring for patients.

Latham convened the session to get more information as he seeks to write a bill addressing the nursing problem. He is holding five such gatherings across the state.

‘‘I think you underestimate your importance in the eyes of the public,’’ Latham told the group Wednesday.

He said that Iowa now has a shortage of 2,100 nurses that will swell to at least 9,000 nurses in a decade.

As the number of nurses shrinks, the demand for their services will go up as the baby boom generation ages and needs more medical care, according to Latham.

Neal Loes, a vice president of Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, said the profession is ‘‘at an unprecedented time’’ because the demand for nursing care will rise as the supply of nurses dwindles.

‘‘We need more support from the government,’’ he told Latham.

Marie Sheeder, a nurse at Trinity Regional Medical Center, was one of several people at the meeting who called for making more student loans available for nurses.

Latham said last year the federal government provided $156 million worth of forgivable loans to nursing students who agree to work in areas where there is a critical shortage of nurses. He said he expects that number to increase to $200 million in the next budget year.

Loes said some student aid should be used to help nurses pursue advanced degrees that will enable them to become nursing instructors. The number of those instructors is dropping along with the ranks of nurses in medical practices, hospitals and long term care facilities.

Connie Boyd, the chairwoman of the Health Sciences Department at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, said seven of the school’s 11 full-time nursing instructors will be eligible to retire in the next five to eight years.

Representatives of Trinity Regional Medical Center in Fort Dodge and Humboldt County Memorial Hospital said the Iowa Central program is their main source of new nurses.

‘‘We need the program at Iowa Central to be successful to have successful recruiting,’’ said Deb Shriver the chief nurse executive at Trinity Regional Medical Center.

Quality is just as important as quantity when it comes to replenishing the ranks of nurses. Jennifer Mewes, director of nursing at Wright County Medical Center in Clarion, said she’s ‘‘having an issue finding quality nurses.’’ She said some recent nursing graduates don’t seem to have the high level of interpersonal and clinical skills that previous generations of nurses have.

The best of those skills aren’t much help with the rising tide of recordkeeping and regulations that basically all the nurses complained about Wednesday. That burden falls especially hard on nurses working in long term care facilities. There, when an elderly patient falls, the nurses face three hours of paperwork.

‘‘We’re not taking care of the patients, we’re nursing the charts,’’ said Jodi Berns-Lennon, the co-director of nursing at Friendship Haven in Fort Dodge.

Latham said the regulations may be coming from the state government, not the federal government.

‘‘I’ve talked to congressional colleagues who don’t hear this outcry,’’ he said.

Contact Bill Shea at (515) 573-2141 or

Article Photos

U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Ames, listens at left as Nancy Hamilton, right, administrator of Friendship Haven’s Tompkins Health Center, talks about nursing issues Wednesday afternoon at a town hall meeting to discuss Iowa’s nursing shortage and other related issues.



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