Food For Thought

Addressing the Nursing Shortage

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

Last month I had my first experience with an operating room environment. Iíd hoped to follow in my motherís footsteps óshe didnít have any surgery until she was 94 years old. Even at my age a trip to the hospital for minor outpatient surgery can cause a high level of anxiety.

From the time I entered the pre-operation room to the time I left the hospital, nurses were helping me get through the process. Some performed the technical functions; others just provided much-needed comfort and support. One nurse even commented about reading my articles in this magazine as she wheeled me into the operating room. I was thinking to myself, ďBoy, I hope she enjoyed my comments.Ē

The nursing staff at Prince William Hospital certainly made my experience as pleasurable as can be expected and I thank them for their efforts. Recently, a friend of mine whose wife had a stroke commented on how a nurse at the hospital helped save his wife from more serious consequences by her alert observation and action. My family has personally experienced the anxiety created when a loved one is confined to a hospital that was short on nursing help. Iím concerned that in the future the quality of our health care will be compromised by societyís failure to address the serious shortage of health-care providers.

During my years as an educational administrator I supervised the Licensed Practical Nursing program for Prince William County Schools. The program was one of the most effective vocational programs offered by the school system. Working in cooperation with the local hospitals, the program produced many excellent graduates who are providing a valuable community service. The program still exists some three decades later in Prince William, as it does in many other school systems throughout the state and country. Students receive one year of pre-clinical experience followed by a year of clinical experience in a participating hospital. Each student must then pass a state exam to receive a license to practice.

In the past some school systems have threatened the elimination of this program because of a perceived low pupil-teacher ratio. The program accepts adults as well as seniors in high school. State guidelines establish a clinical ratio of 10 students to one instructor. Since the schools got little credit for the adult population, there was some reluctance to continue school support. Today some programs are revenue-based, with monies coming from several sources; but as is often the case, itís not enough.

Dr. Kathleen Kunze, director of Vocational Education for Prince William County Schools, says about the nurse-training program, ďItís the best-kept secret in town.Ē I could have made that statement decades ago; some things never change. These programs are usually based in one school or vocational center and in my opinion donít receive proper attention by administrators and guidance counselors. Recruiting high school seniors is difficult and many of the programís students are young adults in their 20s who have returned to take programs they didnít know existed when they were high school students. School boards need to address this issue by making sure that proper attention is given to all school programs.

Students can continue to work toward advanced degrees at community and four-year colleges, which will accept parts or all of previous experiences toward RN or other degrees. These working arrangements provide excellent opportunities for advancement while earning a living. At a recent ACRE (Action Committee for Rural Electrification) meeting sponsored by Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative, Sen. Charles Colgan noted that the General Assembly provided monies to furnish the new facility at the Northern Virginia Community College Campus. This facility is designed to help prepare nurses and personnel for various other medical careers. Now itís up to the communities served by this facility to encourage students to take advantage of this new educational environment.

When I left Prince William County Schools to become a professor at George Mason University, I again had the opportunity to work with people in the nursing profession. The George Mason School of Nursing at that time was part of the School of Professional Studies, which included education and social-work programs. The nursing faculty certainly set the high standard for the college. The dedicated staff produced outstanding graduates who helped alleviate a critical shortage of nurses in many areas of the state. My own daughter was one of the graduates of the program, so I speak from the perspective of a close personal experience. Virginia has many excellent nursing programs at colleges throughout the state.

Signs of Hope

Discussions with representatives of the George Mason Nursing Program show signs for hope. The number of applicants is increasing. The applicants span all age groups. This appears to be a welcome national trend. Most students entering the nursing profession have historically been female. In recent years more males have chosen this career, but it still remains largely a female occupation.

Increased opportunities for females in all professions have led to shortages in some professions such as nursing and education. Nurses still face the challenges such as shift hours, high levels of stress, and insufficient pay. Like teachers, firemen, law-enforcement workers and other public-service positions, the nursing profession needs our continued support.

Technology and business growth have contributed to the high quality of health care provided the citizens of this country, but technology alone will not provide the services needed for an aging population. Itís the person-to-person contact that usually stands out when we recall a loved oneís experience in a medical facility.

Nurses provide the greatest amount of this kind of human interaction. As a society we should continue to encourage our youth to seek careers in nursing and other associated professions. Weíll all need their help somewhere along the road.

Whatís Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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