‘Robust’ nursing education system in Kansas helps fill gaps in care

The combination of understaffed hospitals and decreased enrollment at nursing and medical schools has led to an increased need for trained professionals at a national level.


Like many industries, nursing is seeing the effects of the baby boomer generation entering retirement. Hospitals’ oldest workers are retiring in scores, and with fewer young graduates to call on, the health care industry finds itself with more jobs than there are people to fill them.

Topeka’s two largest hospitals — Stormont Vail and University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus — have been able to avoid the staffing shortfall common in many states, in part because of the support provided by northeast Kansas colleges. Enrollment at Baker University’s and Washburn University’s nursing schools hasn’t dropped, and both programs work closely with area health care facilities to help ease students’ transition into the workforce.

Despite some states’ struggles, Monica Scheibmeir, dean of Washburn’s nursing school, said the school’s application and admission numbers are as high as they were five years ago.

“Three statements are true,” she said. “Statement 1: We have a national shortage. Statement 2: The shortages are geographic. Statement 3: There are pockets of shortages in Kansas, but we have a fairly robust system in place across the state.

“In comparison to Colorado, we look like shining stars. They probably have double the positions open. The west and south also have much larger work shortages relative to Kansas.”

Maintaining a high number of graduates will be key going forward, as the Kansas Department of Labor projects registered nurses will have the most openings due to growth among all health care careers. A projected 36,955 registered nurses will be employed in Kansas in 2020, a 25-percent increase from 2010.

Darlene Stone, vice president and chief human resources director at Stormont Vail Health, recently moved from Florida, where she spent a majority of her career, and agreed Kansas is in a better position than most states because of its nursing schools. She also said Stormont Vail has better systems in place to retain staff than what she experienced in Florida.

“We’re not using any traveling nurses or agencies,” she said. “It’s better for our patients to use our own staff. Our nurses train with us and are ingrained in our culture. Our team is our team. They’re here for the long run.”

In many cases, that on-site training starts when potential employees are still in school. Lisa Alexander, chief nursing officer at University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus, said the hospital takes a proactive approach to encourage students to pursue medical careers.

“It’s important to celebrate the versatility of nursing school and promote that as an option for folks,” Alexander said. “We have a nice pipeline with Baker and Washburn right here in the city, and they’ve been a strong partner for us. We also reach out to local high schools for internship and job shadowing programs.”

Washburn and Baker place students in area hospitals for internships and clinicals, which benefits both parties. Students get real-world experience and build rapport with a potential employer, and hospitals get help from a staffing perspective while observing a student who is months away from entering the workforce.

Of Baker’s 40-person spring 2017 graduating class, 26 were hired by Stormont Vail, Stone said.

“Washburn has done a great job maintaining enrollment, and Baker is increasing its enrollment from 40 to 60,” she said. “Our market is blessed to have great nursing programs funneling to us.”

Other hospitals in the state, including those in rural areas and smaller towns, also have tapped into area nursing schools to help their staffing situations.

“We strive to have good working relationships, and not just with big hospitals,” Scheibmeir said. “A lot of our students want to go work in Hiawatha, Onaga, near Emporia. We try to really spread out our relationships.”

Alexander said St. Francis currently has more openings than usual, but that has more to do with the hospital’s transition to the University of Kansas Health System than any trend in staff shortages.

“We have a younger nursing staff through our connection with nursing programs, but I would also say we have a good bell curve with experienced folks, too,” she said. “I have seen articles about baby boomers retiring, and that stresses the supply part of our positions. That’s why I think it’s really important we’ve got the schools here in town.”

St. Francis’ student nurse tech employment model gives those pursuing a degree a chance to work part time or as needed while gaining an understanding of the workplace’s culture.

Stormont Vail also offers career entry paths for new hires, including a laddering program that allows registered nurses to advance through the ranks as they receive experience and skills certifications.

For the time being, salaries are an area that remain a drawback for nurses. In 2016, Kansas had 27,130 registered nurses making an average salary of $58,260. For that reason, programs that encourage a smooth transition into the working world are critical for a profession the Department of Labor says will be the fastest-growing between now and 2024.

“In the next 10 years, 1 million of the nation’s 2.7 million current nurses will retire,” Scheibmeir said. “It’s also anticipated 80 million men and women will be over 65 in 2050. That’s a large group of people who will need help taking care of themselves, and one of the main groups helping will be nurses.”



Read more about the Capital-Journal special section, State of Health Care in Kansas, at http://cjonline.com/state-health-care-kansas.

See the 24-page Capital-Journal digital magazine of the special section here.