By Ben Billmyer – WRDW (Watch Now)
Georgia has one of the worst nursing shortages in the country and Augusta has the second biggest shortage in the state behind Atlanta. A meeting of a Senate study committee gathered at Augusta University Monday afternoon to address this problem.
The College of Nursing and the Office of Governmental Affairs at AU met to discuss the barriers to Georgians’ access to adequate healthcare and the role this nursing shortage plays. A key talking point centered around current state laws restrict what advance program registered nurses (APRN’s) and nurse practitioners can do when they graduate.
Those laws prevent those nurses from using full authority, which officials say has lead many to leave the state for other positions. As the need for more healthcare rises around the state, statistics show a potential shortage of 50,000 registered nurses in Georgia by 2030, while at least 700 nursing positions remain unfilled across the Augusta area.
Officials say it’s bad timing as Georgia has the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths, along with some of the highest rates of death from diabetes, heart disease and HIV. But officials say responding to the shortage is one way to tackle those issues.
A meeting of the minds at Augusta University focused on solving Georgia’s nursing shortage. The biggest topic — a Georgia law affecting what students like Amma Sarfo can do as nurses and nurse practitioners when she graduates.
“I don’t think it should be easy, but I feel like it shouldn’t be as hard as it is,” says Sarfo. “You know, if you do your practicum for a whole semester and you perform at an adequate level then you should be given the opportunity to work where you do your practicum.”
Renee Unterman, Georgia’s Republican Senator from District 45 and Chair of the state’s Health and Human Services Committee, calls Georgia’s laws the most restrictive in the country. She says non-physicians are legally restricted from providing patient care unless they are supervised by a primary care physician, which is causing talented nurses to leave the state in search of more authority and higher-paying jobs.
“What happens is they get educated here, they get their diploma, their degree, their Ph.D even and they move out of the state of Georgia,” says Senator Unterman. “And that’s a shame because we have a work force shortage here.”
A 2014 study from Georgia Watch shows there are more than 9,500 APRN’s statewide and more than 192,000 nurse practitioners, but state law still restricts these positions and non-physician providers from practicing independently. In rural parts of the state, the lack of non-physician options has begun to take a toll on local healthcare providers responding to a growing health demand.
The Georgia law limits what nurses can do without a doctor. They can not write prescriptions for schedule two prescription drugs like Oxycontin and Percocet and are limited in ordering tests like CT scans and MRI’s.
With Georgia ranked as the 41st-healthiest state and 49th among primary care physicians per capita, Unterman says giving nurses more authority will help lower healthcare costs and serve patients who might not see a primary doctor.
“Those primary care doctors see the patients that have money or have insurance, but those that don’t have any – they don’t see them,” Unterman says. “And that’s why nurses are so important because they can fill that gap. They can take care of those patients that no one else wants to see.”
As for Sarfo, she hopes her path will keep her in Augusta a little longer after graduation.
“We want to stay here. I mean, some of us have been in Augusta for decades, you know? We chose Augusta University for a reason,” says Sarfo. “We love the school, we love the College of Nursing here and we want to stay in Georgia and work in our highest capacity.”
Recent data shows our area with up to 800 nursing positions unfilled, along with many more positions left available across rural counties in our area. Adding to that, so many professors are now retiring and there aren’t enough students stepping up to take their place.
But there is some progress. Augusta University has received five grants so far this year to help recruit more students to the nursing program while their enrollment numbers have risen a small bit at the start of this school year.
Officials are looking to overturn the laws in place to give more authority to APRN’s, nurse practitioners and other positions in order to get higher quality healthcare to rural parts of the state. The committee will meet again before the end of the year before taking their findings to the state next year.
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