Florida found a cure for nursing shortage. It didn’t work.

Florida’s effort to train more nurses has faltered, raising concerns about whether there will be enough to care for the state’s increasing number of patients.

There were about 12,000 nursing vacancies last year, twice as many as in 2009, according to the Florida Center of Nursing. This could force nurses to care for large numbers of patients at a time, leading to inferior care and nurse burnout, experts warn.

“When you have a shortage, nurses that remain tend to handle the load, but at what cost?” asked Willa Fuller, executive director of the Florida Association of Nurses, an advocacy group. “We know that it contributes to errors and inconsistencies in care if don’t have adequate nurse staffing.”

The problem could get worse during the next few years as the large number of older nurses in the workforce retire, and the state’s population continues to grow.

Hospitals say they are aggressively recruiting as well as partnering with colleges to offer scholarships and programs that provide a direct pipeline for top nursing students.

has offered sign-on bonuses of up to $20,000 and referral bonuses of about $3,000 for qualified applicants, said Melissa Durbin, chief nursing officer. And to retain them, the hospital offers career ladders where nurses can earn more money as they take on more responsibility.

Memorial Healthcare System, which employs about 4,000 nurses, has about 200 to 300 vacancies at any given time, said Terrie Garner, director of talent acquistion.

“We’re actively recruiting day and night, weekends, every week,” Garner said. “We can’t just look in South Florida anymore. We have to look all over the country.”

State lawmakers have been trying to address the problem since at least 2009, when a report projected a shortage of 50,000 nurses by 2025, Their solution was to make it easier for new schools to open, limiting the power of the state Board of Nursing to turn down new programs.

Today, there are about 350 nursing programs in the state, double the number there were before the rules were relaxed. In that time, the number of nursing students climbed by 54 percent. But too many students are failing the license exams as the demand for nurses increases.

A recent state report found that two of every five nursing schools graduated too few students to meet state mandates. Most of those schools are unaccredited and many have since been closed, including Techni-Pro Institute Inc. in (26 percent passing rate), Sigma College in Oakland Park (11 percent) and Carleen Home Health school in Fort Lauderdale (11 percent).

What attracted many students to these schools is they couldn’t get into more reputable ones, which had been slow to expand.

Schools like Nova Southeastern University, Florida Atlantic University and get more qualified applicants than they can accommodate. Nursing programs are among the most expensive to run because they require small faculty-to-student ratios and costly laboratories.

To meet the need, local colleges are expanding programs and offering clinical work during nights and weekends.

Keiser University is starting a new bachelor’s in nursing degree to its flagship West Palm Beach campus.

Broward College has been expanding its nursing programs about 10 percent a year, offering more courses online and more clinical work on weekends, Dean Debbie Papa said. The college graduates about 325 to 350 students a year, she said.

FAU’s nursing school admitted just 40 students a year a few years ago, but increased to 125 for this fall.

“We were able to go to the administration and explain the state had a tremendous need, and we wanted to do what we could to increase the numbers so more students could graduate from a quality program,” said Associate Dean Kay Edwards.

But many qualified candidates are still being turned down.

That’s helped the Christian college Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach. The program started in 2007 and enrollment has grown about 10 percent a year, now admitting about 60 students a year. As a private school, tuition is more expensive, but students have been successful at passing the license exam and finding jobs, said Joanne Masella, dean of nursing at the school.

“Some of our finest graduates have been students who were rejected by state universities,” Masella said. “They come here and are grateful to get in adn they excel. We’re starting to see the fruits of our labor out there in various hospitals.”

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