UA Nursing Department Prepares Students to Enter VA

By Katie Serrano

The Razorback Reporter

The University of Arkansas School of Nursing is preparing their graduate students to find the right hospital to work at after a strike at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Little Rock raised concerns about working conditions in June.

Susan Patton, interim director of the Eleanor Mann School of Nursing, said she had “mixed feelings” about the strike that lasted a week in Little Rock.

“Nurses’ primary job is to take care of their patients,” Patton said. “But if they feel that their working conditions are affecting the way that they care for those patients, they also have an ethical responsibility to speak up about it.”

There were approximately 50,000 job vacancies throughout the VA in April 2017, according to data released by the VA.

After the strike, the hospital responded by implementing a plan to recruit more nurses, start a bonus program for experienced medical and surgical Registered Nurses, and lowering the bed capacity in order to protect and enhance patient care, according to the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System.

“Here in Fayetteville the nurse-to-patient ratios are well balanced at the VA hospital,” Patton said. “I notice significant differences between the environment at VA hospitals compared to other local hospitals. When our students go through their clinical rotations, I like to visit the VA last because the nurses are typically in a good mood. They are taking care of veterans, who are very service oriented people, and some of the most appreciative patients you can work with.”

One incentive for Arkansas nurses is the VALOR program, which stands for VA Learning Opportunities Residency.

“The VA hires students while they are in school and gives them special training, as well as pay,” Patton said.

Pay also has been an increasing issue for Arkansas Registered Nurses. The annual mean wage of registered nurses in 2016 in Arkansas was $57,630 compared to the national mean annual wage of $72,180, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, “pay isn’t always the most important thing,” Patton said.

“We tell our students to pick hospitals based on the support system they will be offered,” Patton said. “Although the pay at VA Hospitals may not be the highest, I have seen that taking care of veterans results in the happiest nurses.

Arkansas nursing students also are required to research and apply for jobs themselves while they are students. They must take into account several factors that make it a desirable place to work, such as turnover rates and cost of living.

Arkansas is in the top regional percentile of states with the highest turnover rate, which is the percentage of employees in a workforce that leave during a certain period of time, for Registered Nurses, according to Nursing Solutions Inc.

Although Little Rock nurses went on strike, their pay is approximately 10 percent higher than nurses in Northwest Arkansas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I think this helps prove that the environment is ultimately the most important factor for a nurse,” Patton said.

Patton encourages students, nursing or not, to talk to military recruiters even if it’s something they’ve never considered.

“VA hospitals give special preference to veteran nurses,” Patton said. “Not only do they offer incredible financial support, but from my personal experience, veterans make the best nurses because they are working with the newest technology, and can relate the best to the people they are helping.”

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