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Nurse Shortage Forces Renowned Research Center to Close Beds

August 22, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The National Institutes of Health, unable to recruit enough skilled nurses with a government pay scale that is $5,000 below Washington-area standards, said Friday it has been forced to close 5 percent of the beds in its world- renowned clinical research center.

″There is difficulty in recruiting professional nurses and technical workers, and we happen to be in one of the acute phases,″ said Tanya Crow, acting associate director for nursing services at the NIH’s Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center.

Colleen Henrichsen, a spokeswoman for the center, said NIH has closed 19 hospital beds for cancer patients, more than 15 percent of the beds reserved for patients undergoing cancer therapy as part of NIH research projects.

The clinical center also has closed six beds in its intensive care units because of nurse shortages, Ms. Henrichsen said. The clinical center has about 500 beds in all.

The center ordinarily employs the equivalent of about 700 full-time nurses, and as many as 70 of those slots have been unfilled at one time due to the recruiting difficulties, Ms. Crow said.

When problems are severe, she said, the center is ″not able to go full steam ahead with some of the research as quickly as some of the (clinical) investigators would like to do. In the aggregate, yes, it would be slowing the effort of the institute.″

The problem is that the government’s pay scales for registered nurses run about $5,000 a year below the going rate in the Washington area, and federal personnel laws don’t allow NIH to raise the pay level to compete.

Ms. Henrichsen said NIH offers beginning registered nurses $18,000 a year, compared with $23,000 to $24,000 by other institutions. The center pays head nurses $31,500 a year, while the going rate in the area is $35,000 to $38,000.

The competition also is expected to get stiffer as time goes by, Ms. Crow said.

″The pool is diminishing,″ she said. ″The number of nurses going into professional training is decreasing, so the pool that is coming out is less than it has been.″

Ms. Crow said she still is successful in recruiting many nurses by selling them on the chance to work alongside some of the world’s leading scientists as they conduct research on the cutting edge of medical science.

But, she acknowledged, prestigious research hospitals abound in the Washington area, so a skilled nurse does not necessarily have to choose between pay and challenge.

The Washington Post, which first reported the problem in its Friday editions, said the shortage of nurses is particularly severe in the cancer wards because of the special training required and because nurses working there tend to ″burn out″ more quickly because of the emotional pressure of dealing with critically ill patients.