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Can Community Colleges Fix Nurse Shortage?

Ed Williams
Nursing graduates at the Summer 2015 convocation

New Mexico has a nursing problem. In recent years some hospitals have had to close beds because there weren’t enough nurses to staff them. And as more people enroll in health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the need for nurses is growing even faster.

Andrea Martinez, Stephanie Chaves and Colleen Whitsell are some of the first New Mexico students to earn their bachelor’s degree in nursing, through a community college instead of at a four-year university.

It’s part of a collaboration between the University of New Mexico and community colleges across the stateto make the degree available to more people from more diverse backgrounds­—people who might otherwise go for a shorter, but less comprehensive, associate’s degree in nursing.

There is a lot of demand for new nurses here. Statewide we have almost 3,000 fewer nurses than we need.

But solving the shortage isn’t as simple as filling vacant nursing jobs with just anybody.

"It’s really important for any kind of medical professional to have people who are familiar with the population they’re serving and are able to empathize with them," said Lauren Reichelt, director of Rio Arriba County’s Health and Human Services Department.

"And especially among the elderly, there are people who prefer different kinds of traditional treatments. Our nurses know what those are, and so it makes it easier for them to communicate to people in a manner that’s meaningful to them," Reichelt said.

That’s one reason the new community college nursing graduates are so important, says Diane Evans-Prior of the Central New Mexico Community College nursing program. She says if nursing degrees are available at schools in towns where aspiring nurses live, those nurses are less likely to leave home when they start work.

"We want them to stay in Farmington, in Hobbs, we want them to stay in Grants and Gallup," Evans-Prior said. "We want them to stay in those home communities, whereas sometimes when they go to the bigger schools they head off out of state."

And Evans-Prior says getting a bachelor's in nursing makes it possible for nurses to continue on to higher degrees in the medical field—something that isn’t always possible with a two-year associate degree.

"So ultimately if we have these folks starting out as bachelor's degree nurses, then their chances of going on for that master's degree—nurse practitioner, health care policy, nursing education—then we’re filling a niche that is incredibly underserved."

Community colleges in Farmington, Santa Fe, Hobbs and Rio Rancho will be filling that niche by turning out bachelor of nursing graduates in the coming years.

And for this year’s graduates, like Stephanie Chaves, the prospects look good.

"I’ve just been getting text messages right now for a job, so hopefully next week I’m going to start talking to some people," she said.

Because as long as there’s a nursing shortage, there won’t be any shortage of job opportunities for new nursing graduates. 

Ed Williams came to KUNM in 2014 by way of Carbondale, Colorado, where he worked as a public radio reporter covering environmental issues. Originally from Austin, Texas, Ed has reported on environmental, social justice, immigration and Native American issues in the U.S. and Latin America for the Austin American-Statesman, Z Magazine, NPR’s Latino USA and others. In his spare time, look for Ed riding his mountain bike in the Sandias or sparring on the jiu-jitsu mat.
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