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Oklahoma needs more nurses and people to teach them, report says

Oklahoma City — Oklahoma needs more nurses, though no one is quite sure how many, a workforce committee concluded in a recent study showing many nurses on the verge of retirement.

The health subcommittee of the Governor's Council for Workforce and Economic Development recently released a report outlining ways to increase the number of nurses working in Oklahoma. Its recommendations include offering scholarships and other incentives to aspiring nurses, increasing pay for their teachers and enacting harsher penalties for people who attack health care workers.

According to the report, more than a third of Oklahoma's nurses are older than 50, and are expected to retire in the near future. Replacing them and adding to their ranks will be urgent as the state's population continues to age, the report said.

Shelly Wells, chair of nursing at Northwestern Oklahoma State University and head of the subcommittee, said workforce leaders are working on estimating how many nurses Oklahoma will need in the future, but it will need more.

Oklahoma already is in the bottom quarter of the country when it comes to the number of nurses compared with population, she said.

“We're not even up to par with what everyone else has, let alone looking at future demand,” she said.

Some recommendations would require legislative action, like adding tax credits for experienced nurses who agree to oversee others' training and expanding the felony assault law, Wells said. Currently, it's a felony to attack a health care provider in an emergency room, but only a misdemeanor in other settings, she said.

Shelly Dunham, CEO of Okeene Municipal Hospital and a committee member, said it's difficult to find and retain nurses in rural hospitals, because larger facilities can offer attractive signing bonuses. Partnering with the Physician Manpower Training Commission to pay tuition and offering some flexibility with scheduling has helped, she said.

“For us, we've been fairly effective at what we're doing here,” she said.

Some of the problems, such as the shortage of nursing educators are bigger than any hospital can address, however, Dunham said.

“There's a lot more people that apply for nursing school than get accepted to nursing school,” she said.

Nurse educators earn about $40,000 a year, so most nurses go into higher-paid patient care jobs, Wells said. The problem is that each nurse educator can only train so many students at a time, so that limits the number of nurses graduating and going to work with patients, she said.

“It's not uncommon for new graduate nurses to earn more than their professors,” she said.

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›