After a tough summer battling a nationwide nursing shortage in a town that fills with fun-loving tourists, Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center is making big progress in a non-stop push to bolster nurse staffing.

Over the last few months, it has:

  • Hired 117 nursing school graduates who are now working in the hospital.
  • Launched a yearlong nurse residency program that makes recruiting easier by providing novice nurses with mentoring and other support to ease their transition from student to professional.
  • Hired another 87 experienced nurses from North Carolina and other parts of the country.
  • Brought on more than 100 traveling nurses, bringing the total to 315.
  • Added 26 Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) who provide key bedside aid, freeing up nurses to provide skilled patient care.

"What we've been able to do over the last two months has been extremely impactful, but we still have a ways to go," said Amy Akers, chief nurse executive at the hospital, which serves seven counties in eastern North Carolina.

The nursing shortages that New Hanover has experienced aren't unique. Hospitals across the U.S. have seen an unprecedented exodus of veterans — due to COVID-related job stress, early retirements and even the allure of lucrative short-term gigs as traveling nurses. Even during the pandemic, many hospital beds across the U.S. have had to stay empty simply because there weren't enough nurses to care for more patients.

While many businesses simply shut down when their staffing falls short, community hospitals don't have that option, noted Kirsti Smith, director of people and culture for Novant Health's coastal market.

"COVID knocked on our door and we continue to be available for our community," she said.
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In February of 2021 year, New Hanover became part of Novant Health. It's now the second-biggest hospital in the system, which is based in Winston-Salem and serves patients in four states. Akers said the partnership has actually been key to closing local staffing gaps. Novant Health has provided an essential infusion of cash to recruit and hire bedside nurses and aides.

"New Hanover did not have the financial means to move forward and do what we're doing now," Akers said. "It means we're able to treat our community where our community is."

For example, families no longer have to travel miles away to receive specialized pediatric care. At the same time, a $10 million gift from retired NBA star Michael Jordan, who grew up in Wilmington, aims to improve access to health care for underserved coastal communities.

“We would not have the resources we have right now to take care of our community, if it were not for Novant Health,” Akers said.

As New Hanover Hospital's newly hired nurses settle in, work to expand their ranks continues. With the nationwide demand for nurses far outpacing the supply, getting the best and brightest on board means getting creative on multiple fronts.

For example, would-be applicants can now go online and speak directly with a recruiter, to learn more about job openings, New Hanover's workplace culture and what hiring managers are looking for in applicants.

"We want people to be able to speak to someone directly versus putting your application into a 'black hole' where it sits and you wait for someone to call," Smith said.

The hospital has also forged partnerships with local colleges and high schools to tout the rewards of careers in health care. To further close staffing gaps, retirees have been invited back to work for short stints, often to school newcomers in the Novant Health way.

The beefed up staffing couldn't come at a more opportune time.

With the summer comes the yearly influx of vacationers with an array of sudden and unexpected medical needs — from severe sunburn to jellyfish stings, reactions to drugs and alcohol, even broken bones, heart attacks and strokes. Without local doctors of their own, those visitors depend on New Hanover's emergency department.

But as hospitals everywhere struggle on with staffing shortages, online commentary from social media has taken its toll on team members who’ve given their all month after month, Smith and Akers agreed.

"I get discouraged for our team members that anybody would insinuate that they aren't here to do the best they can do to provide the best care possible," Smith said. "Remember: Our team members live here as well, so clearly, we want to provide the best care that we can for this community."

The influx of new staffing is enabling New Hanover to do just that, she said, and the added support has not gone unnoticed on the front lines.

"We're hearing from the team members that they feel the impact of the new team members coming in, so I think that's been really helpful," Smith said. "We just want to continue to provide fantastic care and that's what we're going to do every day."