Closing the gap: Partnership tackles OR nursing shortage

It’s a troubling reality that isn’t well known: Operating rooms are especially hard-hit by the nursing shortage that has persisted for decades. What’s more, the challenges are intensifying as Baby Boomers retire, people are living longer, medical advances are resulting in more surgeries and the need for health care continues to escalate.

Amy Stahley, Ph.D., R.N., assistant professor and associate dean of nursing at Davenport University, is an advocate for addressing the shortage of operating room nurses by tackling its root causes.

In particular, she says, too many students have no idea what OR nurses do and the important roles they fill. If they’re able to have real-life exposure to operating room nursing (informally known as OR nursing and formally as perioperative nursing) while in school, they’re much more likely to choose it as their profession after graduation.

For Stahley, a former OR nurse whose Ph.D. dissertation focused on this topic, it’s a cause that’s personal as well as professional.

Working closely with Carol Shaffer, clinical nurse specialist of surgical services at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Grand Rapids, Stahley is a driving force behind an innovative partnership. Now in its sixth year, the partnership provides Davenport students with OR opportunities while also addressing the hospital’s need to hire and retain more OR nurses – a pain point that isn’t going away anytime soon.


DU students practice OR skills with Carol Shaffer of Mercy Health Saint Mary’s

Part of the cause for this nationwide problem is that, beginning in the 1940s, nursing curricula have moved away from clinical experiences in the operating room because it’s considered a specialty.

“We teach our students to be generalists, not specialists, and the operating room is considered a specialty. Before programs like this one with Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, students’ ability to see what goes on in the OR was pretty much limited to a day trip. They were told to sit in a corner and not touch anything. No one can really learn much from an experience like that,” said Stahley.

To bring needed change to these norms, the Mercy Health Saint Mary’s/Davenport partnership selects 10 junior applicants for an intensive OR learning experience each year. It begins with a half-dozen modules where they learn OR basics such as setting up the instrument table or prepping and positioning patients. They’re given plenty of opportunities to practice their new skills on bed-bound mannequins as well.

“We want students to feel ready to start functioning in the OR on day one,” explains Stahley.

After this front-end training, the students are ready for five weeks of clinical experience in the hospital’s operating rooms during actual surgeries. Whether performing routine procedures like sterile “gowning and gloving” or gaining in-the-moment exposure to operations that may include hip replacements, kidney transplants and even brain surgeries, it’s a learning experience that no textbook or classroom can match.

Davenport University students during their OR experience at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s

On completion, these students are ready to decide if OR nursing will be their career – either at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, where they may already have an advantage for being hired, or somewhere else. To extend their OR learning even further, they can apply for a summer externship at the hospital and/or fulfill the clinical portion of their senior-year nursing leadership and management course requirement there.

For many, it’s a life-changing experience that sparks passion and steers them to a career they might not have otherwise considered.

“As a nursing student, experience is knowledge, and knowledge can have a positive impact on the world around us,” says Ryan Hartnagel, a recent participant.

“Davenport University’s BSN program offers a variety of opportunities to grow and develop skills essential for practicing as a professional nurse. My experience gaining knowledge and practicing nursing skills through clinicals, especially perioperative nursing, has influenced my passion for people and helped prepare me for my career as a perioperative nurse.”

Clearly, this special collaborative program benefits everyone: Davenport students, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s and the people who depend on this facility for acute care.

“By working in partnership, we’re training students to meet a real need in our community,” says Stahley. “There are many benefits, and they’re mutual.”

Shaffer agrees. “The collaborative program between Mercy Health Saint Mary’s and Davenport University has helped prepare students for a career in the operating room, decreased the orientation time and has been successful in retaining new graduates,” she concludes.

To learn more, contact Amy Stahley at astahley@davenport.edu.

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