During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a nurse’s job was no easy feat.
Many nurses who worked on the front lines to treat those affected by the virus experienced high levels of stress, burnout, exhaustion and trauma — and nurses in Greenville were no exception.
“The burnout rates for medical professionals went up across the board and folks were leaving medicine in record numbers from all fields,” said Dr. Phyllis MacGilvray, senior associate dean for academic affairs at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville.
Three years later, the pandemic’s toll on the health care workforce can be seen in the growing need for nurses across the county.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, South Carolina will have the fourth-highest statewide nursing shortage in the nation by 2030.
While the pandemic exacerbated the shortage of nurses, Kathleen Black, chief nursing officer at Bon Secours, said the shortage was prevalent before the pandemic due to an increase in nursing opportunities outside hospital systems and the growing number of nurses retiring.
“(Retirement) was really starting to intensify (a) couple of years before COVID-19,” Black said. “Then the COVID-19 opportunities and being able to do crisis nursing and do traveling (nursing) for a couple of years I think has accelerated the number of nurses that they were able to retire a little bit sooner.”
To help mitigate the growing shortage in the state, local hospital systems have turned their focus to offering internal support and educating the next generation of nurses.
In order to fill the current need for nurses working within Bon Secours, Black said the hospital system has hired temporary agency and traveling nurses. This was also a strategy that the hospital system used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Agency nurses are employed by an independent staffing agency and are able to temporarily work in any hospital that is short-staffed. Bon Secours has also started its own “internal agency program,” which allows nurses within the hospital system’s 50 hospitals to transfer and fill positions, Black explained.
“With the time it takes to hire new (graduates) and get people comfortable, we have had to bring in travelers and agency (nurses) again until we’ve hired and onboarded nurses,” Black said. “So that’s really one of the key strategies. We have not had to close any programs. We have not had to close beds because we’ve been able to bring in temporary staff.”
Along with filling positions, Black said it’s also important for the hospital system to support and show gratitude toward the nurses working to ensure patients receive the best care possible.
Some of the programs Bon Secours has to accomplish these goals include:
- The Be Well Program, which helps address team members’ physical, emotional, spiritual and financial needs through counseling, health screening, coaching and education.
- Life Matters, which offers counseling, child and elder care, adoption assistance, legal consultation and more.
- Called to Shine, which recognizes and rewards staff for their hard work.
“The other piece to it is maintaining our culture because I think a lot of nurses work here and stay because of the culture and our mission to really take care of those that need us in the community,” Black said. “I think it’s creating a culture where nurses want to stay, improving — always looking to do things like shared decision making and shared governance of the units, working on workload, working on what satisfies nurses in patient care.”
Working with education partners
The Upstate’s growing population continues to outpace the number of nurses going through nursing school. To meet the growing demand, nursing programs including Clemson University’s School of Nursing found a blunt solution: admit more students.
John Whitcomb, the school’s interim director and chief academic nursing officer, said Clemson decided in 2018 to expand its program through its partnership with Prisma Health.
“So, prior to that, our freshman class was 75 students and now we bring in 176,” Whitcomb said. “We’ve almost tripled our enrollment in placement in seats in nursing and we’re at capacity now.”
The partnership between nursing schools and their clinical partners is “imperative” to help minimize the current shortage and prepare students for the medical field, Whitcomb explained.
“We need to work with our clinical partners (and) say, ‘OK, here’s what we’re teaching in the curriculum. What do you need to see in a new (nurse graduate) coming out to be practice-ready within your clinical settings?’” Whitcomb said. “You’ve got to work with your health care partners to find placements for the students (to get clinical time).”
In 2022, Prisma Health invested $5 million into a new nursing recruitment and partnership program with five colleges in South Carolina:
- Clemson University
- University of South Carolina
- University of South Carolina Upstate
- Greenville Technical College
- Midlands Technical College
The Prisma Health Nursing Scholars program offers scholarships, clinical experiences and mentorship opportunities to junior- and senior-year nursing students.
Veronica Deas, the executive director for nursing scholarship and program development at Prisma Health, said the program’s purpose is to offer more hands-on learning experiences for nursing students outside of a more traditional academic setting. This helps make it easier for students to transition into full-time nurses after graduation.
“They also have an opportunity to do shadowing experiences within our Prisma Health facilities, which supports those students being able to explore different specialties and roles within nursing,” Deas said. “And so it’s an opportunity for them to be one-on-one with that nurse and have conversations that might be different than those conversations they have during a clinical rotation as well.”
Another added benefit of the nursing scholars program is the ability of Prisma Health to recruit new nurses.
“We’re just excited about this partnership and we know that we could not do it alone, that it does take the combination of our educational partners as well as our health system if we’re really going to put efforts toward decreasing this nursing shortage that we’re having,” Deas said.