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Friday, March 3, 2000
Section: LOCAL
Edition: SOONER
Page: B-1

A nursing shortage seen in other parts of the country is beginning to be felt in the Pittsburgh area.

For years, Children's Hospital hasn't had to do anything special to court nursing applicants, but the hospital last weekend sponsored an open house in hopes of attracting new hires.

Allegheny General Hospital held an open house in December to attract new nurses and is joining other hospitals to reach out this spring to graduates of the region's many nursing programs.

And this week, nurses from around the area are gathering at the Sheraton Hotel Station Square for a conference in which key speakers will address the shortage.

It wasn't too long ago that there was a glut in nursing, particularly with hospitals tightening budgets and assigning more duties to nursing assistants.

But that seems to be changing.

"We went through a period of full employment, but now we're getting back to a shortage period," said Pat Jurczak, spokeswoman for the Hospital Council of Western Pennsylvania.

This morning's keynote speaker at the Nursing Horizons conference at Station Square, which is sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, will talk about the shortage.

Peter I. Buerhaus, director of the Nursing Research Institute at Harvard University, says the shortage is affecting all hospitals in varying degrees, whether they are large or small, urban or rural, community or teaching.

Some areas are being hit harder, including Colorado, Texas, Florida and many Western states. But the factors behind the shortage can be found everywhere, Buerhaus said.

For starters, wages for registered nurses weren't even keeping up with inflation between 1993 and 1997, Buerhaus said, as managed care forced hospitals to be more mindful of the bottom line. So, nurses were being hit in the pocketbook at a time when they also found more stress at work.

Another factor, Buerhaus speculates, is that about 70 percent of all nurses are married. As spouses' incomes improved with the strong economy of the last decade, nurses under stress felt more liberty to cut down on their hours or leave the profession entirely. The nursing work force as a whole is aging rapidly, Buerhaus said, while enrollments in nursing programs have been falling for the past five years.

The shortage now might correct itself in a few years, Buerhaus said, but he projects that the long-term picture for nursing is much more dire, and might be marked by huge shortages in the profession.

Hospitals "need to realize that what they do now will figure heavily into the future," Buerhaus said. "What I would suggest to them is that they really take a very serious look at a long-term investment in the nursing profession."

At Children's, the hospital is having a particularly tough time finding nurses with training in critical care, said Mary Kay Loughran, executive vice president for patient care services. Hospitals from Ohio and other parts of the state are advertising on Pittsburgh radio stations, Loughran said, and women entering the work force have many options other than nursing.

"As far as the nursing shortage, I would say over the last two years it's been building," Loughran said.

The hospital attracted 96 people to the open house last weekend, where applicants had on-site interviews with nursing supervisors. Deborah Coltrane of Sewickley Valley Hospital's nursing program called that step uncommon - usually applicants see only personnel officers when they first meet with a hospital.

Hospitals "have not been calling the schools of nursing for three years for our graduates," Coltrane said. "Now we're getting all sorts of calls."

Bill Cline, the vice president for human resources at Washington Hospital, said his hospital was not having problems recruiting nurses, but that he sensed trouble elsewhere. City hospitals are elevating salaries for nurses, Cline said, which in turn is affecting the salaries he's offering in Washington.

"Our perception is it's starting to hit the Pittsburgh area," Cline said.