Advances in medicine are allowing Americans to live longer than ever before; but as our age increases so does our need for medical care. More patients with more medical conditions, means more staff is required. And the nursing field is feeling the crunch.

Juliann G. Sebastian, Dean and Professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing, shared her thoughts in a Zoom interview on Sept. 30 from her office in Omaha. She said the reality of a shortage of nurses in Nebraska became very evident about 20 years ago.

The Nebraska Center for Nursing, created by the Legislature in 2000 to help address the shortage, reports that Dawson County, with a population of 24,326, has a total of 154 registered nurses and 90 licensed practical nurses. The average age of RNs in the county is 45.5, with 51% of them having obtained a BSN (bachelor of science in nursing) degree or higher. Sebastian said that degree matters a lot.

“It has become increasingly important for nurses to hold a BSN or higher degree, due to the complexity of the healthcare industry. A total of 64% of Nebraska nurses have that degree or higher - the national goal is 80%,” Sebastian explained. “We are working to provide the RN - BSN program, sometimes referred to as the bridge program, meaning a nurse who completes her nursing degree in a community college can come back and complete their higher degree at one of our universities. It’s a matter of helping nurses to continue their education to be better prepared.”

Sebastian explained that when we hear the term ‘nursing shortage’ it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a decrease of individuals choosing that field. The shortage is occurring more in the area of where those individuals choose to work once they have completed their education.

“Our college of nursing has actually seen about a 3.5% increase in enrollment this year. But we recruit very energetically. We are enormously grateful for the increase we have seen. When people talk about shortage more often than not they are talking about at the bedside,” Sebastian said. “We are also seeing a shortage in advanced practice nurses and nursing faculty. It’s a pretty compex picture.”

The Nebraska Center for Nursing projects a shortage of 5,436 RNs and nurse practitioners by 2025, which is a 33% increase. Of the state’s 93 counties, 84 do not have a sufficient number of RNs per capita. “The shortage really does tend to affect the rural areas,” Sebastian said.

One way of addressing that need is by recruiting students from rural areas who wish to return and work there after completing their degree. Such is the case of 2018 Gothenburg High School graduate Natalie Kennicutt. Having completed two years of prerequisites at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Natalie is now in her first semester at the University of Nebraska Medical Center on the Kearney Campus. She is also a Certified Nursing Assistant and has been employed at Good Samaritan Hospital for more than two years.

“It’s difficult for me to pinpoint one exact moment that I decided that being a nurse was in my future. However, I have grown up in a family that puts a high value on helping or serving others, and I have that same passion,” Natalie explained. “My Mom has always told me that from a very young age, I was the ‘nurturer’ of the family - helping others, taking charge of situations, stepping in to be of assistance, etc. I am sure that played a part in my decision as well.”

 Natalie said she became very interested in the science behind nursing while taking biology and anatomy/physiology classes in high school with Mrs. Tiller. “She really provided a lot of hands-on experience that really solidified my love for this field.”

She will graduate in May of 2022 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN), and said she is leaning toward the opportunity to work in an intensive care unit. “I really like the fast pace of that environment, as well as the variety of care that I would be able to provide to patients. I also plan to continue my education - hopefully one day becoming a Nurse Practitioner,” said Natalie.

Perhaps most notably though, is the fact that she does want to return to an area very similar to where she grew up. “I have a love for rural communities and hope to stay in the area. I hope to be in a hospital setting  where I have several opportunities to grow as a nurse and continue my education. Eventually, my plan is to move to a smaller setting where I can be a primary provider,” she said.

Sebastian said that one of the goals of UNMC as well as the Center for Nursing is to “rethink with communities on how we can best help them.”

“When I visit various rural areas throughout Nebraska one thing I see is that hospitals are doing everything they can to let people know what rural life is like. There is a lot of work going on to recruit nurses to rural areas,” Sebastian explained. “We also try to make sure our students get some of those experiences. Even if our students don’t move to a rural area they may see some of those patients coming to a bigger hospital and we want them to know how to give those patients the best possible care.”

Natalie said it was that commitment to meeting the needs of patients all across Nebraska that brought her to Kearney, and to UNMC. “I was confident that I would receive a great education, while still being closer to home,” she explained. “I also really liked the option to apply for the UNMC School of Nursing, and still be able to study here on Kearney’s campus. I have always valued growing up in a rural setting, and feel that an area similar to this is where I would like to eventually practice, as well as continue my education.”

Contact Ellen Mortensen at ellen@gothenburgleader.com or call 308.537.9498