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Wanted: Public Health Nurses

As the current public health workforce prepares for retirement, county looks for qualified replacements.

In the past, when hiring registered nurses for public health positions, Fairfax County Health Department officials have sought applicants with experience.

Now, with the large number of Baby Boomers reaching retirement age — many in the health workforce — the county is feeling the pressure to fill the emptying positions.

"We are currently down 1,000 nurses in Fairfax," said Pat Trahan, assistant director of patient care services with the county health department. "That need is only going to grow with time as the older nurses begin to retire."

To increase awareness about jobs in the county's public health field, the department of health is exploring various recruiting avenues. Initially advertising openings on the county Web site and in the newspaper, the department has expanded to hosting open hire events. The first event took place at the end of January in the Reston-Herndon district office. The second open hire event is Tuesday, Feb. 7, from 4-7 p.m., at the Falls Church district office.

"We've had challenges with recruiting, so we are trying as many different outlets as possible to recruit," said Rosalyn Foroobar, director of patient care services for the county health department.

IN THE MIDST OF ONE of the shortages of registered nurses, 32,617 qualified applicants were turned away from nursing schools in 2005 primarily due to a shortage of nurse educators, according to a survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

By 2020, it is estimated that Northern Virginia will experience a shortage of 6,300 registered nurses. Nationally, the demand for registered nurses will increase 40 percent by that time, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing survey.

To increase the number of annual graduates in nursing and the allied health field in Northern Virginia, and ultimately increase the number of applicants for vacancies, a health alliance was formed in June 2005.

The alliance, called the NoVa HealthFORCE, is comprised of health care professionals, public education officials and technology representatives. The alliance's goal is to increase annual graduates in nursing and allied health fields in Northern Virginia by more than 600 students in four years. These graduates would be from local schools such as George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College. To do this, a budget of roughly $24.3 million is proposed. That money would be used to increase the necessary courses, professors and academic resources at local schools, among other things. The added programs seeks an 80 percent graduation rate increase in the next four years.

The need for younger nurses in the county is immediate, said Sandy Graumann, assistant director patient care services for the county health department.

"There currently is a worldwide nursing shortage, that means there is a shortage in the United States, in Virginia and definitely in Fairfax County," she said. "Anticipated vacancies are really in the thousands and we're all competing for the same resources."

BECAUSE OF THIS decline in health care graduates, employers in need of registered nurses and other medical staff truly have a limited pool of qualified candidates, Foroobar said.

"We're just trying to let people know that we are hiring," she said. "We're searching for individuals that are looking to make a difference in their communities."

Currently the county's public health department's area clinics have 12 vacancies.

"In the past two years, the number of vacancies have been higher than in the past," Graumann said. "That's been predominately because public health is such a good job that people don't want to leave. And because they don't leave, and because they have been in the job so long, they are now retiring and we're having to cover those positions."

The county's public health fields include working in district office clinics, working in county school health clinics either as a public health nurse or a clinic room aid and working in field services. Public health nurses in Fairfax County can also serve on a committee or task force, work with community partners to address health issues, work on grant-funded projects, or make educational presentations at fairs and other events.

"There are so many different areas of public health that sometimes there can be too many choices," said Jennifer Leonard, nurse manager of the county's Herndon-Reston district office. "I gravitated to public health because of the prevention aspect and wanting to help people be able to learn about prevention and take care of themselves before they get into the hospital."

At the January open hire event, a number of qualified applicants came to learn more about the county's public health employment opportunities. If the pilot programs prove successful, county officials could host additional open hire events in the future to gain more applicants.

"Public health is a special deal in itself," said Graumann. "So, if somebody is wanting to do something with prevention and not just acute care in the hospital, this is the place to work."