Originally created 10/04/04

Georgia short on workers



ATLANTA - When Cade Reedy heard that the state of Georgia would forgive his loan as long as he worked for the state a few years after graduating from nursing school at Armstrong Atlantic State University, he quickly filled out the paperwork.

"It made pretty good sense to me to do it," said Mr. Reedy, now a 27-year-old nurse at Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah. The program meant he didn't have to work his way through school, making it easier to focus on his studies.

Mr. Reedy, who was planning to stay in Savannah for a few years anyway, signed up for a program that the Georgia Board of Regents hopes will tempt nursing students to stay in the state - the Intellectual Capital Partnership Program's Health Professionals Initiative.

But even with the regents' program, observers say the state isn't doing enough to deal with the shortage of health-care professionals, particularly nurses. It is a situation some already are calling a crisis, and with a growing and aging population straining the nation's health-care system, Georgia becomes a case study of the problem.

"Unfortunately, Georgia does not currently have a funded effort that has a statewide focus," said Debbie Hatmaker, the chief programs officer for the Georgia Nursing Association.

Forty-seven of Georgia's 159 counties, including Jefferson County, are designated as "nursing shortage counties" by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

According to a 2002 report from the federal Bureau of Health Professions, Georgia is expected to fall more than 32,000 nurses short of what it needs by the year 2020, a 40.1 percent shortage. Next year, Georgia is expected to have 15 percent fewer nurses than it needs.

Nationally, the nursing shortage is projected to rise to 29 percent by the end of the next decade, the department says.

"It does seem to be more severe in Georgia and particularly when you get outside of Atlanta," said Barry Eckert, who as dean of the College of Health Professions at Armstrong Atlantic oversees his school's branch of the regents program.

On its face, the problem is nothing new, Ms. Hatmaker said.

"We've gone through cyclical nursing shortages for decades."

Usually, she said, the problem just involves a difference between the number of graduates being produced by colleges and universities and those needed by hospitals and other health-care facilities.

"This particular time, the issues are much deeper than that," Ms. Hatmaker said.

Not only is the nation's population aging, but another demographic trend is taking its toll on nursing. About 95 percent of the nurses in America are female, Ms. Hatmaker said, but women now have a wider set of potential career paths than ever before.

"Those traditional jobs for women are much broader now than they used to be," she said.

And they are cutting into what was once a ready-made recruiting ground for nurses.

Other professions are seeing a crunch, particularly in the rural areas of Georgia.

George Francisco, a University of Georgia pharmacy professor who coordinates the school's ICAPP program, points out that not only is the baby boom generation getting older, but also its members are retiring. Meanwhile, ever-larger numbers of drugstores and a growth in the number of female pharmacists - who might take time off for maternity leave, for example - make those slots harder to fill.

"It's a combination of all those factors that have just kind of hit about the same time that have created this huge shortage of pharmacists," Mr. Francisco said.

The regents program is one solution that many of those inside and outside the program see as a step in the right direction. The program offers fast-track programs for graduation, gives students incentives to stay in Georgia, and tries to steer them to the areas where they are most needed.

UGA's partnership with Albany State University, for example, sends about 25 pharmacy students to southwest Georgia for their required year of in-the-field training. The hope is, having spent some time in Albany or the surrounding area, the students will want to stay. The program appears to be helping, Mr. Francisco said.

"Once they went there to train, they said, 'Gosh, this would be a good place to live and practice.'"

In the second phase of the program, recently announced by the university system, UGA is looking to recruit more students from southwest Georgia, hoping they might be more likely to return to the area.

Mr. Eckert said the program is important because the southeast corner of the state has trouble recruiting from the state's marquee medical schools, such as the Medical College of Georgia, which are hours away from the area.

But even those involved in the regents program say it must be only one part of a much larger fix.

"This can't be the only solution," Mr. Eckert said.

One mistake, Ms. Hatmaker said, was Gov. Sonny Perdue's decision last year, approved by the Legislature, to strip the funding from the state Healthcare Workforce Policy Advisory Committee housed in the Department of Community Health.

That group had produced a landmark report on the state's health professional shortage and was working to coordinate efforts to tackle the problem.

The disappearance of the committee has left the state's different groups working almost in isolation, as compared with other states where more coordination is the norm.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.