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Session focuses on dearth of nurses

Jean Wortock may be getting a few phone calls today.

Wortock attended a brainstorming session Monday at Tampa General Hospital for health care professionals trying to confront a national nursing shortage.

One of the repeated suggestions: Offer a refresher course for certified nurses who have left the profession and want to get back in.

We've got one of those, said Wortock, nursing program director for the Caruth Health Education Center and St. Petersburg College.

"It gives you the security, I think, for a guided process to get back in," Wortock said.

The Nursing Shortage Summit, as Monday's session was called, was organized by state Rep. Sandra Murman, who has crafted legislation to address a 15.6 percent nursing vacancy rate in Florida hospitals that is expected to grow in the next five years.

"I think it's a critical issue," said Murman, R-Tampa.

Among other things, her bill would establish an agreement with all other states that would make it easier for nurses to relocate to Florida. Currently, certified nurses from other states have to go through a sometimes time-consuming process to be licensed in Florida.

Under Murman's proposal, prospective transfers would only have to show proof of a valid license from another state, speak English and pay a fee of no more than $100.

The nurse must not be under investigation for wrongdoing in another state. Another component of Murman's so-called Nursing Shortage Solution Act would narrow the rules under which a nurse could be disciplined by the state Board of Nursing.

The act, however, is only in draft form, and Murman was holding the summit Monday to solicit other suggestions for improvements to the bill she plans to submit during the next legislative session.

She got plenty of input, from recommendations on ways to make it easier for less skilled hospital workers to get nursing degrees to adding incentives for nursing teachers. Several of those in attendance also recommended creating refresher courses in Hillsborough County and elsewhere.

The Florida Hospital Association projects that there will be a shortage of as many as 34,000 nurses by 2006, compared with the current estimate of 9,000 vacancies.

"That's our struggle," said Richard Rasmussen, the association's vice president for legislative affairs and one of the panel speakers. "It's probably the No. 1 issue we're going to have to come to grips with."

About 30 health care administrators and educators from the Tampa Bay region attended Monday's summit, which was moderated by Deana Nelson, senior vice president of patient services at Tampa General Hospital.

Nelson estimated that TGH routinely has a 14 to 15 percent vacancy rate among nurses, and said the hospital must fill the gaps by paying overtime or hiring part-time temporary help.

"We have the same issue everybody else does," she said.