OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- With evidence of fewer nursing students in Oklahoma schools, the state may be on the verge of a nurse shortage that has plagued some other states for more than a year, health care officials say.
"I think that Oklahoma is just now beginning to experience what we consider a nursing shortage," said Carol Gray, a professional recruiter at Mercy Health Center. "I know that both the East and the West coasts have been experiencing it now for at least 18 months. We've been hearing about it, but we haven't truly experienced it."
And as those states that have been facing a nurse shortage enact new benefits to draw nurses there, officials said things in Oklahoma could be getting worse quickly.
Gray said Mercy has begun to see a "dwindling number of applicants" in the last few months.
Applications at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center's College of Nursing were down this year by about 100 from mid-1990s levels, said Francene Weatherby, a recruiter for the school and president of the Oklahoma Nurses Association.
National nursing school enrollments have been dropping by about 5 percent a year for the last five years, though no exact figures were available for Oklahoma.
A study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association predicts the nation will have 20 percent fewer registered nurses than it needs in 2020.
But while some say the problem is bound to get worse, Gray said the problem is not insurmountable.
"If we put some things into place, we'll just have another challenge 10 years from now. It may not be this particular challenge," she said.
Pay increases are a likely method to solve the problem, but some Oklahoma health care leaders say it will take more than that.
Weatherby said nurses also want greater autonomy and to work with doctors in more of a team atmosphere.
Gray said she thinks nursing needs to be promoted to reach young people.
"I think there need to be some formal plans made in trying to get to the college student who has not decided yet what area they'd like to be a professional in," Gray said, "and also in the high school and even in the middle school and start influencing some choices toward health care."
Gray also said continuing-education opportunities and scheduling flexibility will help.
Gaye Conner, a University Health Partners spokesman, pointed to creating a positive working atmosphere and offering recognition and rewards for good nursing.
"Our main goal right now is to retain the nurses we have and letting them understand how important they are," Conner said.