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11/2/11 - SSRC survey: Fewer nurses working in rural areas

A rural health authority and demographer at Mississippi State warns that fewer nursing students returning to less populated parts of the state could have serious consequences on health care.

Ronald Cossman, an associate research professor at the university's Social Science Research Center, said a survey of nursing students currently enrolled in Magnolia State colleges and universities showed that fewer say they plan to work in rural areas after graduation.

Long-term effects of insufficient numbers of nurses employed in rural parts of the state would result in insufficient medical care, he added.

"The state needs to nurture and grow a pipeline of healthcare personnel if we are to meet the needs of underserved, primarily rural, places in Mississippi," Cossman said.

He cited two major causes, based on the fall 2010 survey of more than 1,000 nursing majors: too few come from rural areas and not enough would choose to work in rural areas, regardless of their origin.

One reason for fewer nurses desiring rural-area work relates to an interest in specialization, he explained. Larger cities offer opportunities to work in particular areas of interest, while less populated areas often have hospitals and clinics where nurses work more as generalists.

"This has implications not just for health care in Mississippi, but for rural recruitment nationwide," Cossman said.

"Presuming that rural natives would be open to practicing in rural places, we have too few nursing students from rural places," he continued. "The pipeline is not big enough to meet demand. The second reason is not that nursing graduates are avoiding rural practices. The problem, from a rural recruitment perspective, is the nursing students are selecting nursing specialties that are not widely available in rural places."

He added, "In essence, they are self-selecting out of rural places because they want to specialize and those specialties tend to be in larger hospitals and communities."

To help shrink the rural nursing shortage, Cossman's report recommends efforts that encourage more people in rural areas to consider the nursing profession and potential financial incentives for practicing nurses to locate in rural areas.

Wanda Jones, Mississippi Office of Nursing Workforce executive director, said the Mississippi Delta is one key area with high nursing vacancy rates. Throughout the western region, there has been a vacancy rate of about 8 percent, although the area has had vacancy rates that nearly topped 20 percent.

"The current rate is still about twice as much as any other part of the state," said Jones, who served for the survey as a liaison between Cossman and state college nursing deans and directors.

Among other duties, her agency collects data on the state's nursing needs, keeping track of vacancies and other research data.

Other MSU researchers contributing to the SSRC survey include sociology professor Lynne Cossman; Philip B. Mason, a graduate research assistant at the campus-based Northeast Mississippi Area Health Education Center; and Katherine Harney, director of North Mississippi Area Health Education Center.

View a digital copy of the full survey report here.

Robbie S. Ward | University Relations

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