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As population spikes, Florida targets waning nurse numbers with 'historic' $125 million investment

 Students pose at their spring 2022 graduation from the associate degree program in nursing at Broward College.
Broward College
Students pose at their spring 2022 graduation from the associate degree program in nursing at Broward College.

The state has a new funding program for nursing schools to retain students and also instructors, who’ve been lured by lucrative nursing jobs elsewhere.

Florida is now officially the country’s fastest growing state, something Gov. Ron DeSantis often takes the credit for.

But the number of nurses in the state is going in the opposite direction — so much so that the Florida Hospital Association predicts a shortfall of 59,100 nurses by 2035. This is especially problematic in a state with a sizable aging population that typically requires medical care.

In a press conference last May, DeSantis acknowledged the problem. "The state is the place to be; people like it," he said. "The demand for nursing, I think, is nationwide but for us, it’s even gonna be more acute."

He announced that money the Legislature had allocated toward the issue — more than $125 million — would go toward high-performing nursing schools, most of it through a fund called PIPELINE, which stands for Prepping Institutions, Programs, Employers and Learners through Incentives for Nursing Education.

"These really historic investments is our way of getting out ahead of this, making sure that we're able to fill these positions," DeSantis said at the press conference to nurses who were attending Seminole State College in Sanford. "Coming from a family where my mother did it for 40 years, you will make a huge impact on a lot of people."

Ten months on, WLRN found the program in South Florida was targeting both students and instructors, as well as teaching facilities, to boost the number of nursing degree graduates who will fill the many open jobs in the region.

That impact DeSantis talked about is a focus for Dean Sara Turpel, the nursing administrator at Broward College, when she talks to people considering a career path like hers in nursing.

"I do this all the time. I am always trying to talk people into becoming nurses," Turpel said.

Broward College received $1.6 million of PIPELINE money, some of which is paying for student grants of up to $250. That money, she said, "will help students get over hurdles that are keeping them from completing the program. Maybe their car broke down or they need a new tire."

At Broward College they're using the state funds for many other needs. They are planning to buy a table with a virtual reality cadaver on it to help students learn all of the body parts, their functions and how to care for a patient with a condition or disease.

Spending on courses and instructors, too

They’re spending on instructors, too. Many part-timers have left from schools all over the U.S. because they are also working nurses.

"Their full-time job at the hospital required them to be there more," Turpel said. "Or they left the area to take one of those exclusive travel jobs where they could make a fortune."

Full-time professors are getting some of the money for teaching workshops that help students pass courses like nursing math. During that extra time with a professor, students might go over calculating doses of medication for particular patients.

Charlotte Rand, who's in her last semester at Broward College, took a workshop in January that was funded with the new state money. It was on anatomy and physiology, a crucial subject she had already studied at the beginning of her course but which she felt could benefit from further work.

"To be successful in nursing, you have to know how your organ systems work, to know what's right and what's wrong," Rand said. "When you learn it in your anatomy and physiology class, it's great — but it's a lot of information to retain."

Rand was 49 years old when she went for this two-year associate degree program, after raising her two children.

"You don't have to be 20 years old or right out of high school to start nursing school," Rand said. "I want to give my service to others at this point. It was not easy for me to take that step, but I'm just super glad that I stuck with it."

Rand hopes to find nursing work in an obstetrics department's operating room in the Deerfield Beach area and fill an opening in Florida.

A lot of people who want to become nurses get turned away from schools. Entry level baccalaureate programs rejected 76,140 qualified applications in 2021, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

One reason for that is because schools don't have enough instructors.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses had been leaving the field, but the last few years have taken a bigger toll on them. Fewer nurses means not as many are available to help prepare students. And there aren't enough clinical placements for nursing students to get practical experience before graduating.

"We are using virtual reality," said Beverly Malone, president and chief executive officer for the National League for Nursing in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization focused on nursing faculty and education.

"It does not take the place of hands-on [learning], but it does provide an opportunity for a skill that just requires repetition," Malone said. "Technology is changing and all of this is about trying to make sure we have enough nurses."

Benefits, as well as challenges

The average pay for registered nurses nationwide is $37 an hour, according to federal labor data. Many nurses are asking for better pay, and an improved patient to nurse ratio, so they’ll stay in their jobs.

But often the challenges get more attention in the public than the long list of benefits. Turpel, the dean at Broward College, smiles when asked what her pitch is to students.

"It's a good way to provide for a family and provide for yourself," Turpel said. "The United Nations hires nurses, the CDC [Centers for Disease Control], the World Health Organization. There's travel nursing. There are ships that travel around the world called Mercy Ships and there are nurses on Mercy Ships. There are nurses at camps. There are school nurses."

Like Turpel, Malone at the National League for Nursing calls nursing a "gold card" to life experiences.

"You can travel anywhere in the world and be a nurse," Malone said. "It opens up so many doors to you. You can start out your career being a pediatric nurse working with children, you can change and work with older adults.

"You can change and start doing cancer therapy with patients. You can change and do what I do — I'm a psychiatric mental health nurse. It is a wonderful, wonderful career."

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Verónica Zaragovia