holds a meeting on the Massachusetts nursing crisis
of 33 Massachusetts nursing organizations brainstormed solutions
to the state's worsening nursing shortage at a summit meeting held
at Boston College on June 14. At issue was a job vacancy rate for
registered nurses of about 9 percent, and an aging and homogeneous
workforce in which 96.6 percent of the state's 113,000 nurses are
female, 95.5 percent are white, and the average age is 48. With
a motivational speech by the 2002 Olympics organizer and Republican
Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney, and impassioned
discussion among nurses about problems of image and substance encountered
in the workplace, the conference built overwhelming support for
the creation of a statewide center dedicated to nurse recruitment.
The summit planners included the dean of BC's Connell School of
Nursing, Barbara Munro (representing the Massachusetts Association
of Colleges of Nursing), and representatives from eight other nursing
groups. Romney had been invited to speak months earlier, before
his re-entry into the state's political fray. The organizers had
been looking for a speaker who might inspire a truce between rival
Massachusetts nursing factions, and Romney had demonstrated the
ability to coax together coalitions as he rebuilt the once scandal-ridden
Salt Lake City Olympics. Even so, one key nursing organization,
the Massachusetts Nursing Association (MNA), representing 17,000
unionized nurses, declined to show up at the conference.
As the keynote speaker, Romney mercifully stayed off discussions
of state politics, but still managed to seduce his audience like
a seasoned pol. He called nurses heroes and related the story of
his mother, who passed up hospice care because she couldn't bear
to switch nurses. Romney also drew parallels between the recruitment
challenges of the Olympics and those of nursing. He had taken over
an Olympics tarnished by charges that Salt Lake City organizers
had bribed Olympic Committee members, and he had quickly faced the
need to attract 24,000 volunteers for arduous, sometimes tedious
work. "People don't sign up because of what you need,"
he said. "People sign up because they want to do it."
Romney described a marketing campaign that promoted volunteer jobs
as "the experience of a lifetime" and positioned former
professional quarterback Steve Young as the chief of volunteers.
Some 67,000 volunteers applied, believing--as nurses might--that
they were serving a higher purpose. After the Olympics, a star-studded
concert honored all the volunteers--emblematic of the kind of professional
respect and reward system often found wanting in nursing.
If Romney was the inspiration, the summit's afternoon speaker was
the reality. Dennis Sherrod, associate director of recruitment and
retention for the North Carolina Center for Nursing (NCCN) spoke
about his organization, which was mandated by state law in 1991
to plan workforce strategies so enough nurses will be available
to meet residents' health care needs. The NCCN—which is 75
percent funded by the state, with the remainder coming from grants
and donations—is recognized as a national authority on nursing
workforce data. Its recruitment strategies include posters for schools,
a nursing badge earned by Scouts and other youth groups, and coloring
pages to plant a positive image in even the youngest consumers.
To help reward—and thereby retain—nurses already in
the workforce, NCCN hosts pampering retreats for nurses, who frequently
tell Sherrod that the getaway inspired them to earn advanced degrees.
North Carolina's strategy seems to be working. In recent years,
while many states have watched their nursing workforces shrink,
the number of nurses in North Carolina has grown faster than the
state population. While the NCCN has no hard data to take credit
for such success, it can count the 600 nursing scholarships it awards
yearly to students who graduate from high school with a B average.
The center also calculates hits on its Web site, which went from
100 to 600 per week after a recruitment campaign mailed more than
30,000 brochures, videos, and posters to schools, libraries, employers,
Between the speeches by Romney and Sherrod, more than 80 nurses
and other health-care professionals broke into small groups to discuss
ways to tackle the shortage in Massachusetts. Nurses repeatedly
lamented their difficulty with recruiting minorities and men to
the profession, and stressed the need to get positive messages about
nursing to children, teachers, and guidance counselors. One told
the story of a Vietnamese girl who was advised by her guidance counselor
that she couldn't be a nurse because she was an immigrant. Audible
sighs of understanding greeted another nurse who recalled a medical
resident telling her, "You're just a nurse."
Wish lists grew quickly, cataloging hopes for increased financial
aid for nursing students, better P.R. to polish the profession's
image, and even a Nursing Hall of Fame. The overarching idea, nurtured
by summit planners, was to create a state center like that in North
Carolina, dedicated to nurse recruitment and retention.
The summit meeting closed amidst rousing support for such a center.
Like impassioned members at a revival meeting, one nurse after another
stood up to pledge the support of her organization. Some offered
meeting space or staffing, others promised financial backing, Web
site links, Web design, or fund-raising help. Flyers were circulated
announcing an August 1 meeting for the proposed center's design
Chances are that the ex-citement would have been muted if the MNA
had accepted its invitation to the summit. The union's absence was
not unexpected. The Massachusetts Association of Registered Nurses
(MARN), which coordinated the conference, was created after the
century-old MNA withdrew from the American Nurses Association in
2000. With just 400 members, the new organization is dwarfed by
the older union, which is, says BC's Munro, "the biggest bargaining
unit for nurses in the state."
According to its spokesman, David Schildmeir, the MNA didn't attend
because it views the summit's focus on a statewide nursing center
as a distraction from the union's main goal, which is passage of
legislation to ensure reasonable nurse-patient staffing ratios.
"We saw nothing on the table about that," Schildmeier
said in an interview. Even if a center successfully recruits more
nurses, he said, "if you haven't fixed the core problem and
given them a safe ratio, they're just going to turn around and leave."
Little was said at the conference about the missing organization,
although MARN's past president, Karen Daley, described the MNA as
"critically important" in her speech and said she hoped
the group would join future discussions.
When the summit was over, dozens of nurses trooped back to their
emergency departments and community centers, to doctors' offices
and hospices, all seemingly revved up to work on a state center
for nursing—with or without help from their unionized colleagues.
Gail Friedman is a freelance writer based in the Boston area. Her
article on the nation's nursing shortage, "Who Will Care?" appeared
in the Spring 2002 issue of BCM.
Photo from left: MARN's Karen Daley and Susan Krupnik, the Connell
School's Barbara Munro, the Olympics' Mitt Romney
Photo by Lee Pellegrini