Mercy Northwest launches new residency nursing program

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,575 views 

Mercy Hospital in Rogers has invested in a new nursing residency program which is mandatory for new registered nurses it employs. The 12-month program allows new nursing hires to get a two-week refresher course on basic medical procedures as well as introduce the new hires to Mercy’s care protocol.

The inaugural class began last week. It is being taught by Toni Walker and Karl Bengs, clinical educators for the hospital. There are 12 RNs in the first class and the group is finishing its first two-week classroom requirement which is taught at the hospital.

Walker said each of the RNs were hired by various hospital departments and the residents are assigned to specific areas such as medical surgical, cardiac, orthopedic or emergency. Once the two-week classroom content is covered the nurses will shadow other departments and work in their assigned jobs for the next year.

Walker said each resident also has to complete a research project by the end of the program on some aspect of care which is based on evidence. Patient falls and prevention or a new medical procedure like ECMO, the heart and lung bypass which is done outside the operating room, are examples of research. At the end of the program the nurses are pinned.

Walker said a second residency class will begin in August and there are 17 RNs signed up. She said it’s not an option – all new RN hires must go through the program. The nurses are paid for the time they attend and it’s a good way to set up a support system for nurses who could be overwhelmed with the scope of their jobs, she added.

Walker said Mercy Northwest is one of the last hospital’s of its size in the Mercy network to add the residency program for RNs. She’s been employed by Mercy for five years and said she loves educating nurses because it’s a crucial part of the success for the nurses and the hospital.

“I love critical care, if I didn’t have a family (husband and kids) I would pull up a cot and hang out there all the time. There is a need for nursing and a shortage always and critical care is a really hard area for a new nurse to step into. But we are in a situation from a staffing perspective that there is no choice but to hire new grads everywhere,” Walker said.

She said departments that a five years ago wouldn’t have hired new graduates are now doing so. Walker said it’s unfair to patients to put nurses in situations where they are not comfortable and it’s not good for the new nurses to place them in situations where they cannot be successful. She said it’s also unfair to Mercy’s existing nursing staff to send them new hires that are not ready to do the job.

The residency program allows new nursing graduates to become better acclimated to some of the more the challenging nursing areas such as critical care, cardiac or trauma. Walker said it’s rewarding for her on the front-end to be able to help the new candidates understand the critical care processes.

“Our nursing students are asking us for the residency program. It’s one of the first things candidates ask Human Resources on their initial interview. It’s something that lots of facilities are doing today,” Walker said. “There are some canned residency programs out there, but we looked at that and found it would be better to do our own program given the level of sickness we see is higher than people assume and our patient load is higher than people assume. The need for this onboarding program is higher than it’s ever been.”

Walker said nurse burnout is also a concern. They see RNs walk away after just four or five years into the career, and 20-year nurses are harder to find.

“If we can educate and remind them why it is they came into this field and meet monthly this first year to keep their passions high and provide counsel and guidance to them as they need it then we can help them be successful,” Walker said.

Nurses are at the center of primary and critical patient care but too often there are not enough nurses to go around. The demanding job has one of the highest turnover rates in the healthcare industry at 16.2%, according to a report by Nursing Solutions released this spring. In the south central region, which includes Arkansas, turnover rates were at 18% last year.

Meghan Scholtens, who graduated with her nursing degree this spring from William Jewel College in Liberty, Mo., is among the nursing residents in Mercy’s inaugural class. Scholtens grew up in Berryville and her dad received care at Mercy many times and she knew from an early age she wanted to be a nurse within the Mercy system.

Scholtens was hired by Mercy Northwest to work on the medical surgical floor but said being part of the residency program is a big deal for her as it provides guidance and reassurances in a demanding job. She said while she’s hired to work in medical surgical she eventually hopes to end up in working maternity having enjoyed the work she did in that field while doing rotations in her college training.

“I feel very comfortable in mother/baby (departments) and understand the concepts, but I took a position in medical surgical first because I want to better understand the broader medical experience before I go to mother and baby,” Walker said.

Anna Markovich is also in the program having been recently hired by Mercy Northwest after her spring graduation from Crowder College in Neosho, Mo. Markovich was hired to the float pool, which means she will rotate around several areas such as medical surgical, cardiac, orthopedic and cardiac-neurology.

“When I am comfortable in those areas I can get additional training in critical care if I want. I will be floating for the first several months. Part of the reason I chose float pool is so I could get a taste of everything. I worked on cardiac yesterday. I enjoyed it but I also have a desire to work in the ER,” Markovich said.

Scholtens and Markovich were relieved to know Mercy has the residency program because it can be scary for new nurses taking on huge responsibilities right out of the gate. They said the first two weeks of refreshing the basics has been beneficial because it’s been two or more years since some of the material was covered during their first year of nursing school.

“There is a lot a differences between hospitals and the procedures they use as well as equipment and this residency program allows all the residents to get familiar and comfortable with Mercy’s procedural processes given they came from different schools and have trained in various hospitals prior,” Walker said.

Bengs said he’s been at Mercy Northwest for about eight months having relocated from Dallas Methodist where they had a nurse residency program. Bengs said he did not have the opportunity to take part in a nursing residency class early in his career but sees the benefits they bring.

Scholtens said having a network and support system is great, especially when she feels like she’s in over-her-head.

“I can always go to Toni or Karl to debrief at end of my shift and it feels great to have that support,” she said.

Markovich agreed, saying that having the nurse educators to turn to has given her more confidence and she doesn’t have to interrupt her charge nurse who is busy doing her job.

Walker said the residents have already begun to form close connections in the first two weeks and she expects the bonds will help improve communication across the entire hospital as the residents work in various areas.

Chief Nursing Officer Charlotte Rankin said health care systems must be innovative in efforts to recruit and retain nurses. Mercy’s new residency program will help prepare new graduates for success and increase Mercy’s chances of keeping them long-term, said Rankin, who is also the hospital’s chief operating officer.

The average registered nurse salary in Arkansas is $55,360 which is below the national average for registered nurses. There are approximately 23,480 RN’s employed in Arkansas across a range of industries, according to the Nurse Salary Guide.

Northwest Arkansas employs 2,940 RNs who earn an average of $55,490 annually, or $26.68 per hour. In the Fort Smith metro there are 2,020 RNs who earn an average of $24.89 per hour or $51,770 per year. The Jonesboro metro employs 1,040 RNs who earn $25.85 per hour, or $56,210 on average per year. The central Arkansas metro has 9,800 employed as RNs who earn on average $58,720, or $28.23 per hour.

Despite good pay, nursing turnover is high and Mercy Hospital CEO Eric Pianalto recently told Talk Business & Politics that hospitals have to look for ways to lighten the load of their nurses if they expect to retain them. He said the new nursing residency program is just one way Mercy is committed to nurse retention which is critically important to the hospital’s long term success.