Kaweah Health nursing program to remedy RN shortage

Kaweah Health Hospital is partnering with Unitek College to provide employees with a nursing program, they can attain a bachelor’s degree in nursing within 3 years, remedy the nursing shortage

VISALIA – With 220 nursing positions left vacant after the pandemic, Kaweah Health and Unitek College pioneered a way to invest in future nurses for the long term.

During an online virtual meeting, Kaweah Health’s Keri Noeske, the Chief Nursing Officer, announced that Kaweah Health will be partnering with Unitek in order to provide a nursing program at the hospital. The program was created to supplement the nursing shortage Kaweah Health is facing, and will admit 25 students into the program twice a year. The program will be on-site instruction, and the very first cohort of nursing students will begin in March, 2023.

“We recognized the need for taking action and doing something very different to solve this nursing shortage,” Noeske said. “Throughout the pandemic, [the shortage] only got worse, and so the actions that we’re taking are outside the box thinking and we’re very excited about them.”

In the summer of 2022, Kaweah Health met with Unitek and the Board of Registered Nurses, where they agreed to expand the pool of potential nurses by allowing Unitek to collaborate with Kaweah Health. The collaboration comes in the form of their very own nursing program. However, the program is only offered to Kaweah Health employees who have not yet attained their nursing degrees and 80 to 100 employees have already expressed interest in the program.

The program will not be free for students, as they will be responsible for a portion of tuition. However Kaweah Health is working on a subsidy program that will help pay for the program if the student works for Kaweah Health for three years following their graduation. If they do not fulfill the three year obligation, they will have to repay the subsidy. Unitek has also decreased the amount for the program due to the partnership with Kaweah Health.

“One of the ways to increase educational capacity, you need two things, you need faculty, and you need clinical experience. You need a clinical facility and rotations,” Abdel Raheem Yosef, the Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Unitek Learning said. “This partnership actually provides both, because the nurses are working on a career. And the senior nurses could participate in teaching and preparing their colleagues who’s going to become nurses working for them.”

Nursing shortages began to skyrocket at Kaweah Health after the pandemic, resulting in Kaweah Health’s 220 vacant bedside registered nursing positions they see today. The 220 positions account for roughly 20% of the nurses at Kaweah Health, as they only have roughly 1,000 positions. Pre-pandemic, there were roughly 60 to 80 positions vacant. As the average age of nurses lingers in the late 50s, Yosef said that realistically, those nurses are going to resign within the next few years, and this will result in an even larger nursing shortage.

“The nursing shortage in Tulare [County] is huge and it has been like that since before the pandemic, the pandemic just made it worse,” Yosef said. “I think this nursing shortage is a patient safety issue and a public health issue. So it is a crisis now, and we need all to act together and work together to solve this workforce shortage.”

The first cohort will take three years to complete their bachelor’s degree in nursing. Noeske said this is due to the students not having any prerequisites completed beforehand, so they will be starting from the bottom up. In September of the same year, another cohort will begin, which Noeske projects will be another 25 students that will be able to earn their degrees in three years as well. In the future, if the program has enough candidates with nursing prerequisites completed, it could potentially be a two-year program.

Though the program is currently only available to current Kaweah Health staff, Noeske said that as the program progresses and becomes a permanent installment at Kaweah Health, it will be available to all interested nursing school candidates in the county. 

“The community has been very supportive, very excited and impressed,” Noeske said. “But, it’s a lot to take on for some of these programs because of the demands for faculty and clinical sites that they have to manage with already large numbers. So everybody doing a little bit of expansion, including Kaweah with these 25 seats can help bring more [nurses] to the community.”

Noeske said that the nursing shortage has caused multiple nursing shifts to go unfilled every week. Currently, Kaweah Health has been using agency or travel nurses to fill the void, as well as offering extra shift sign ups for staff. There are also per diem nurses available. However, when the hospital depends on temporary nurses, they aren’t able to give them the orientation that they need, such as a regular full-time employee would get. 

Noeske said the hospital loses their investment when nurses only come for a few weeks at a time. Noeske said that the hospital is looking for long-term employees as agency and travel nurses can become very expensive. Additionally, hiring temporary employees can affect the environment at which nurses work together. The fast turnover rate often causes a lack of teamwork, according to Noeske.

Each travel nurse costs the company three times more than an employed nurse. Kaweah Health CEO Gary Herbst said they have been paying their travelers anywhere from $180 to $200 dollars an hour, in comparison to $50 to $55 for an employed nurse. Since the start of the pandemic, Kaweah Health has paid $81 million for contract nurses, and that number does not include extra shift bonuses and overtime for local nurses.

From now until the program starts in March, Kaweah Health will prepare for students by building up their faculty with Unitek and getting team members from Kaweah Health on board to aid the learning process. They will also be figuring out logistics of space and where everything will take place, as well as clinical rotations. Much of the planning has already been done by Lacey Jensen, Kaweah Health’s director of clinical education, Noeske said. 

Noeske said that though they only have a nursing program available as of right now, the hospital is interested in looking into other licensed professional programs in the future, such as respiratory therapy, therapy aides, ultrasound and cardiac sonography licenses, according to Noeske.

Unitek currently has 17 campuses across six states where they teach nursing all the way from Idaho to Reno. Part of Unitek’s mission is to expand nursing education opportunities to communities that are underserved, according to Yosef. He believes that healthcare providers should be representatives of the communities they serve, and without them the community will suffer. He added that good wages are important to give nurses the opportunity to stay local, and it also encourages preventative care and raises trust with employees. 

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