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Hospitals seek to solve their own staffing shortages

Surgical technicians (from left) Nicole Jenney, Lenworth Hawkins, Neera Basnet, and Lisa Chin at Newton-Wellesley.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

At Newton-Wellesley Hospital, there has long been a shortage of surgical technologists, the people responsible for setting up operating rooms and equipment. The pandemic only made it more difficult to recruit for those positions.

Now, the hospital has begun a program with Newton’s Lasell University to offer free training and a job for people interested in becoming surgical technologists.

“If you create a culture of investing in your staff, [people] feel valued and invested in and choose to stay,” said Errol Norwitz, the hospital’s president. “That’s the kind of culture I’m trying to create here.”

Since the start of the pandemic, health care workers have left their professions in droves, burnt out by waves of critically ill patients. In January, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration estimated that critical staffing shortages had contributed to the loss of approximately 700 hospital beds since the beginning of 2021. Now, a number of hospitals have stepped in to try to shore up the health care workforce, by starting or expanding paid programs to recruit staff in response to workforce shortages and the mounting costs of hiring temporary workers.

The new program at Newton-Wellesley and Lasell will begin in May. The university will provide classroom training, and the hospital will provide clinical and simulation training for at least three cohorts of 10 to 12 students per year.

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The hospital will offer the first group a full scholarship for the certificate training in exchange for three years of employment at the hospital and is raising money for future scholarships.

Interest has been robust, with over 100 people coming out for an informational session on the program on Wednesday, Norwitz said.

Currently the hospital employs 52 full- and part-time surgical technologists, and has openings for 11 more, though Norwitz said the need is even greater. The program will not only begin to solve Newton-Wellesley’s shortages, but could potentially fill vacancies throughout Newton-Wellesley’s parent organization, Mass General Brigham, and potentially in other hospitals, Norwitz said.

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Norwitz also hopes the program increases workforce diversity by lowering financial barriers to training.

Michael Alexander, president of Lasell University, said the school is offering the courses at approximately half the cost of typical undergraduate credits, with the cost initially picked up by the hospital. Students can also use their credits toward a baccalaureate degree at the college, lowering the overall cost of a four-year degree, he said.

Holyoke Medical Center is also funding programs to entice new staff. The hospital’s new $1.5 million to $2 million program is recruiting students who have recently graduated from nursing programs and offering to pay between $25,000 and $50,000 of their loan debt in exchange for four years of employment.

New grads will complete their residency program over the summer and will be paid as they work alongside nurse educators to gain their required training. The hospital hopes to fill many of its 32 to 35 open nursing positions.

“We are three weeks into the program and have already filled two-thirds of our total open positions with new grads,” said Spiros Hatiras, CEO of Holyoke Medical Center. “We anticipate filling every open position by mid-May as we have a lot of interest and candidates.”

Similarly, Beth Israel Lahey Health is providing paid training for people to become medical assistants in primary care offices. The hospital will offer six weeks of paid training in a classroom and two weeks of hands-on training. The goal is ultimately to help candidates earn a medical assistant certification, with BILH paying for the exam. With the help of a $500,000 state grant, the health system says it will train at least 55 people.

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“It’s smoothing the pathway in for these jobs if people are interested,” said Joanne Pokaski, Beth Israel Lahey Health’s assistant vice president of workforce development.

Other hospitals within Beth Israel Lahey Health are expanding training programs. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is increasing the frequency of a nurse residency program it hosts in partnership with Emmanuel College, now running it annually instead of every other year. The program, which the hospital launched in order to diversify its nursing workforce, pays for people who have an associate’s degree in nursing to get their bachelor’s degree in nursing. Program participants go through a two-year orientation as a nurse at the hospital while earning their degree.

“In this time where it’s really hard to fill nursing jobs, it’s a great way to bring people into that role,” Pokaski said.

The hospital has also expanded eligibility for its patient care technician training. Patient care technicians take patients’ vital signs and otherwise work to support nursing teams.

Previously, the hospital would recruit people who had been through a certified nursing assistant program or who had some direct-care experience. But the market has become so tight that the hospital is now accepting applicants with a high-school diploma or GED, no experience needed. The hospital pays for training, and to make up for applicants having less experience, the hospital added a week to its four-week training program.

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Beth Israel Lahey Health also plans to expand its training of central processing technicians, who sterilize and repackage operating-room equipment.

The program offers several weeks of classroom and hands-on training in partnership with Bunker Hill Community College. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center sponsors the tuition, books, and fees and hosts the clinical hands-on practicum. The health system also pays for applicants to take a certification exam and offers them a job if successful. The program is currently run at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, but work is underway to bring it to other hospitals in the BILH system.

UMass Memorial Health is also putting money on the table to help train a new generation of workers. Prior to the pandemic, UMass Memorial Health required schools to provide and pay for the majority of the oversight of students doing clinical rotations at the hospital.

“Fast forward two years and 500,000 people leaving the workforce, [and] we’re bending over backwards to get students to come here,” said Dr. Eric Dickson, CEO of UMass Memorial Health. “We’re going to schools and asking them what can we do to help.”

The health system is now paying for and providing all of the oversight for clinical rotations.

Additionally, UMass Memorial has increased the size of a new grad program from 120 nurses last year to over 200, to provide even more recently graduated nurses front-line experience under the eyes of a senior caregiver. Nurses are able to work in a wider range of departments as a result of the supervision, and are better prepared to contribute after the program, Dickson said.

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“The pipeline work was put off,” Dickson said. “You’re so busy dealing with the surge you realize we took no external rotations. Now we don’t have the workforce or applications we need.”


Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.bartlett@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ByJessBartlett.