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Utah hospitals look to higher ed institutions to graduate more health care workers

Photo of nurses sitting at desks in a hospital ICU.
Charlie Ehlert
Courtesy University of Utah Health
Staff working at the University of Utah’s Medical Intensive Care Unit.

There is no shortage of education programs for people interested in joining the ranks and job prospects in the health care industry. But hospital leaders say they’re hurting for skilled labor, and Utah colleges aren’t graduating people fast enough.

In a recent meeting with the Utah Board of Higher Education, leaders from the state’s largest hospital systems and health care organizations urged higher ed officials to address what they say is an increasingly urgent situation.

“We're just tapped,” said Greg Bell, president of the Utah Hospital Association. “We've got to have a bigger stream of professionals come into health care if we're going to handle anything like [a pandemic] again.”

Tiffiny Lipscomb, human resources director for Intermountain Healthcare, said IHC has about 3,000 job openings right now. There is demand for skilled workers across the board, officials said, from various nursing and medical technician roles to behavioral health and long term care specialists.

The stress of the pandemic pushed many people to retire or look for other jobs, while the boom in traveling nursing opportunities encouraged others to take higher-paying alternatives with temp agencies. But Lipscomb said there aren’t enough applicants to take their places, as well as limited ability for existing staff to support interns and provide the kind of on-the-job training people need.

Bell said health care organizations and higher education institutions have been working together for over a decade to create more capacity at Utah colleges. A briefing from the Utah System of Higher Education noted there has been a 328% increase in nursing faculty at state colleges between 2007 and 2021. At least some health care training is offered at all 16 public institutions.

Still, there aren’t enough slots for incoming students. Associate degree programs in nursing have 85 more applicants than seats available, the briefing said. Bachelor programs have 396 more applicants than they can accommodate.

Another challenge students often run into is obtaining the prerequisites needed for an advanced degree. They may start out at a technical college and earn a nursing certificate before applying to an associates or bachelors’ degree program. But each school has different requirements, so the student may have to start over if they are denied admission to one school and want to apply to a different one.

Steve Hood, USHE’s assistant commissioner of academic affairs, said he’s working with colleges to align their prerequisites, but the changes require a lengthy approval process from the American Commission on Education and Nursing. He said the group requires a “pre-application” before applying and then typically takes about four months to just look at the application once it’s in.

“These are some of the logjams that we're up against,” he said. “We're going to get there. With all due respect, I don't think we'll make it in months, but we're hoping to get there in a year or so.”

The state Legislature did provide $2 million this year in ongoing funding to help institutions expand medical training beginning in the fall of 2023. Most said that money would not go very far given the wide range of needs, so both the health care industry and colleges will have to get creative in how they address the problem.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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