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Educators, employers say health care at crossroads

Kathi Schaff facilitated a health care forum Wednesday afternoon to address the performance of the workforce entering the health care industry. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system hosted the workforce assessment initiative for area health care employer's teachers. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - One of the first things Judy Killian did when she took over a floundering Goldpine Home a decade ago was to have all medication-trained staff become licensed practical nurses. There are 64-68 residents in the assisted-living facility at any time and all of them have their own medication needs.

"They need nurses. Period. Bottom line," she said.

Killian said that decision contributed to a complete turnaround at Goldpine.

"We took a failing business, doors ready to close, and within one month had the building full and have been at 100 percent capacity with a long waiting list now for 10 years," she said. "So we're doing something right at Goldpine."

But Killian is concerned about the future availability of LPNs in the region.

Northwest Technical College now is examining its nursing programs as it seeks national accreditation. The recommendations from the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission is 30-40 credits for a practical nursing degree. NTC's degree now is 63 credits.

"We have a very robust program," said Jeanine Grangeness, founding dean for the Bemidji School of Nursing.

Grangeness and Killian were among about 30 heath care employers and educators who took part Wednesday in a workforce assessment at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. Sponsored by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, seven similar forums are being held throughout the state.

The availability of future LPNs was a main topic during the assessment. Rachel Tuenge, the director of nursing at the Mahnomen Health Center, said she posted a job opening for an LPN position and received no interest. After posting the job as a registered nurse opening, she received four applications in one day, but none of them was interested in the position after hearing what it would entail.

"They don't want to do what an LPN does," she said. "We're stuck between a rock and a hard place."

Grangeness said NTC has not decided on a future path for its nursing programs and is now reviewing its programs with students and employers. The Minnesota Board of Nursing is requiring nursing programs to have national accreditation by January 2016.

By then, either NTC will have achieved that status or will no longer be educating nursing students, Grangeness said, emphasizing that no decisions have been made. Possibilities include a two-year RN degree either in addition to the LPN program or as a replacement.

NTC now offers a 63-credit, two-year LPN program. After its completion, students may choose to undergo another year of schooling to obtain an associate's degree in registered nursing - but the RN program requires completion of the LPN program first.

Registered nurses are able to assess situations and identify care needs for patients. LPNs can provide the care, but do not assess patients.

In a survey of current LPN students at NTC, 3 percent said they want careers as LPNs, Grangeness said.

"We're really hoping to have a two-year RN (program)," she said.

Grangeness, who herself went through the LPN program during her schooling, said the LPN program before was just two semesters long. Now it is a four-semester program.

"It's turned into a pretty expensive program," she said.

Employers who took part in the workforce assessment, though, said they rely on LPNs for a lot of their staffing needs.

Kent Hanson, the vice principal at Northland Technical College in Thief River Falls, said he heard in a conference that just 8 percent of practical nursing programs in the country have national accreditation. He stressed that Northland does not intend to eliminate its LPN program, but needs input from employers as it considers future coursework requirements.

"It's going to be a challenge," he said.

Northland provides more than 15 percent of the LPN workforce in Minnesota while NTC provides about 3.9 percent, according to Grangeness.

Richard Failing, CEO and administrator of Kittson Memorial Healthcare Center in Hallock, said schools must do a better job at selling careers and presenting them in a realistic manner. He said he might go and talk to a class or a group of students for an hour at a time, once a semester or year, but that doesn't do enough.

"You have to sit down one-to-one and create some trusting relationships," he said, advocating for the creation of full-time career counselors.

The 90-minute assessment covered an array of issues in the health care industry, focusing on three careers: LPNs, RNs and laboratory workers.

Suggestions for improvements included more training on the interpersonal skills needed for nursing. Failing said he is concerned that as students communicate more and more by electronic devices, they will not have the skills necessary for working side-by-side with co-workers and patients.

Kathi Schaff with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce was the moderator of the assessment. Forty-two assessments are being held on various industries throughout the state with seven focused on health care. Schaff said a lot of the themes she heard are crossing over into different industries, such as manufacturing, where employers said they appreciated having technologically savvy employees but didn't need the newest and best equipment as much as they needed employees better educated in the fundamentals.