By Rose Hoban
Hundreds of nurses descended on the General Assembly Tuesday, filling the hallways with chatter and filling the galleries of the legislative chambers with white coats.
They had come to Raleigh to get their voices heard in the debates around health care policy at the legislature, and to flex some political muscle.
“We have about 145,000 nurses in North Carolina and we’re highly trained health professionals,” said Marie Thomas, an instructor in the associate’s degree nursing program at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem. Thomas and her fellow instructors showed up on Jones Street with almost 300 nursing students.
“We spend more time at the bedside, at the clinic, with the patient than any other health care worker,” she said. “We’re a voice for your grandmother, your mother, your dad, whoever your family member is who needs help and access to care.”
N.C. Nurses Association CEO Tina Gordon said part of the rationale behind the day was to remind legislators that nurses have a lot of information that can be useful to policymakers.
“We came to build those relationships and remind them to contact nurses about what’s going on at the bedside,” Gordon said. “We want to show our lawmakers how their decisions impact people at the patient level.”
She said the day was also important for the understanding of the almost 850 nurses who attended.
“Sometimes it is challenging to help nurses understand how debate and decisions at the General Assembly really impacts their daily lives and why it matters to their daily practice,” Gordon said. “Days like today help to magnify how much legislative decisions impact their practices and patients. Once nurses understand that, they’re more likely to get involved.”
Many concerns expressed
A number of nursing instructors were present for the advocacy day, but several of those instructors noted their numbers are dwindling.
“My concern is lack of faculty that’s moving through the pipeline,” said Jennifer Mashland, an instructor at the Mountain Area Health Education Center in Asheville.
“A lot of nurses stop at the associate’s degree; they don’t go on to get the bachelor’s degree. But they really need a master’s degree to be a faculty member to train the new nurses coming in,” she said. “So we don’t have that pipeline to train the new faculty members that can train the nurses of the future.”
Mashland said it’s also more lucrative for a master’s-prepared nurse to work in a hospital than to teach at a community college, where salaries are low.
She said that it’s hard to attract faculty when they’ll make perhaps $20,000 less teaching than someone with the same level of education who chooses to work in a hospital.
Mashland’s co-worker Elaine Scherer expressed concern about a looming nursing shortage.
“Many nurses are aging out,” said Scherer, who noted that the exodus of older nurses from the workplace was slowed by the economic downturn. “Nurses who were going to retire didn’t. But in Asheville, the average age of nurses in the hospital is in the 50s. In a few years, as the economy gets better and they retire, there’s going to be a shortage.”
Another issue getting attention was the ability of nurses to practice to the “full extent of their training.”
Nurses’ work is delineated by statutes that define what they can do and where. In North Carolina, master’s-prepared nurse practitioners and nurse-midwives are unable to function unless they have approval from a physician, something that rankles many advanced-practice nurses.
They point to last summer, when eight nurse-midwives lost their ability to perform home births after two supervising physicians withdrew their support.
Last month, a bill was introduced in the legislature to also put certified registered nurse anesthetists under physician supervision.
“It was inflammatory for advanced-practice nurses and not supportive of consumers,” said former NCNA president Dona Caine-Francis. “Something like that would add a layer of supervision that’s not necessary.”
Many of the nurses said they came away from the day more prepared to advocate for their causes.
“I was here to basically represent the nursing society and to meet my representative,” said nursing student Jerri Lankford, who at the age of 52 is transitioning from a career as a lab technician to getting her master’s degree in nursing. She had the opportunity to sit down with Rep. James Boles (R-Southern Pines), who represents her home in Moore County.
“I’m not sure I’d have met him if I hadn’t come here today; I’m not sure I would have gotten in my car and driven to the capitol and said ‘hi,’” Lankford said. “But that was one of the things that came out of this today, that I was able to meet him.”
Lankford said she plans to keep in touch.