Closing the experience gap part of Atlantic Health's recruitment strategy, chief nurse exec says

Trish O'Keefe, PhD, RN, is senior vice president and chief nurse executive for Morristown, New Jersey-based Atlantic Health System. She is also the president of Morristown Medical Center, which is ranked as the number one hospital in New Jersey by U.S. News & World Report for four consecutive years. Dr. O'Keefe spoke with Becker's in November about how the network is navigating the healthcare staffing crisis.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What strategies is Atlantic Health System using to retain and recruit nurses and staff during this challenging time?

Dr. Trish O'Keefe: We definitely have focused and received feedback from our staff members in regards to having flexibility in their work. We've also ensured that we have a mentorship program, especially for our new young nurses that we've just hired. As you certainly know, they had limited experience when they were coming out of school. So we have organized a one-year residency program for our new staff coming out. We also are looking at our pipeline. We know our staff will be retiring. We've definitely seen an acceleration in that across the country, and New Jersey has definitely seen the same as well. So we need to make sure that we have a pipeline of new young staff coming in.

We have nurse aids and other team members that are interested in going into nursing, so we've created a shadow program — a boot-camp-type program — to help and support them through tuition reimbursement, mentorship and going back to respective schools. So that's just a couple of the efforts that we have been working on together. 

Creating an environment of support is so important. It's recruitment and retention, but it's also the environment that you work in. You spend a great deal of time in the organization that you work in, and you need to feel supported. You need to have areas of downtime, and that's one of the areas we've looked at from a resiliency standpoint for our staff to offer some downtime spaces. As we know, it's been stressful, particularly during COVID, but as our patients continue to return to receive healthcare, we need to support our very amazing nursing staff, and our team members in general, that we have at Atlantic.

Q: Do you think nurses and staff members who have left will be returning once things go back to normal, whatever that new normal may look like?

TO: We embraced and called our nurses who had retired just when COVID was evolving to offer different types of roles. We know nursing can be physically, mentally and emotionally stressful. So we had some of our retired staff come back and be part of our vaccination teams, and be part of other support areas for our patients. So I think we need to continue to look at alternative types of roles for nursing, not just the typical historic role. And I think some will definitely come back. They want to stay engaged in healthcare, and there are so many different opportunities for nurses now.

Q: What are your top three areas of focus as chief nurse executive over the next year?

TO: We are focusing our recruitment efforts on the experience gap. We know we have experienced staff retiring, so we need to ensure our staff is competent. So we're looking at other types of mentorship programs to keep those experienced nurses who are potentially retiring still engaged and part of an educational program for our new staff. From a patient safety standpoint, we're focusing on our staff being competent and knowledgeable, especially in the specialty areas. That's the majority of where we're seeing people retire — out of critical care at an emergency department. And we expected the majority of them to retire just by virtue of their age. So a priority of ours is ensuring we have supported, confident new nurses in addition to our extremely confident resilient team that we have existing onsite. 

We are creating specialty internships as well. The mobility of nursing is exciting to nurses, so we've created internships in the OR and in the emergency department and have added critical care and maternity care. They are year-long internships, again, supporting and expanding knowledge, and another opportunity for nurses to grow and work in those specialty areas. So it's balancing those that are retiring with providing the expertise to our other nurses that are interested in those areas. 

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