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A new USF partnership aims to address a nursing shortage at Sarasota Memorial Hospital

The program will train existing nurses to overcome burnout caused by COVID-19 while developing a pipeline for new nurses to join the hospital.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital will benefit from a pilot program focused on alleviating the burnout and stress among nurses during the pandemic while also addressing a growing workforce shortage in the field.

The partnership with the University of South Florida College of Nursing will launch in January and last six months. Around 90 spots are available, of which 60 are for Sarasota Memorial nurses and 30 for USF nursing students.

It’s designed to provide resources for nurses to take care of their own well-being within the profession, said Rayna Letourneau, assistant professor at the USF College of Nursing.

“The pandemic has really worsened all of our health and wellness problems within the nursing profession and it's leading to increased levels of burnout, depression [and] anxiety, and these working conditions are causing nurses to leave their bedside jobs or leave the profession altogether,” Letourneau said.

“What we're hoping to accomplish with this program is to create an environment in which nurses can focus on their own self-care, and they can thrive and be successful and provide quality care.”

Participants will attend small group coaching sessions and access resources focused on ways to handle stress and take care of their wellbeing.

Part of the program will provide USF nursing students with clinical experience at the hospital that could lead to a job for those interested in working at Sarasota Memorial or its new Venice facility after graduation.

“We want to focus on a pipeline into the nursing workforce,” Letourneau said. “Because of the nursing shortage, we want to make sure that we're able to actively recruit and train and help prepare them to go into the hospital setting.”

The pilot project, called Excellence in Nursing During COVID-19 and Beyond, is funded by a $115,000 donation from longtime donors David Kotok and Christine Schlesinger. Additional funds include a $25,000 grant from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and private grants from the USF Foundation.

Once the pilot is concluded, USF faculty will continue to offer the program to all front-line nurses at Sarasota Memorial over the next two years. The Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation continues fundraising for the two-year program, which received a $400,000 grant from the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation.

“We want to roll it out systemwide throughout Sarasota,” she said. “And we anticipate that would take two years to get all 900 nurses to be able to complete the program.”

Participants can work at their own pace but will generally spend about two hours a month on the six-month program, Letourneau said.

As a way to support nurses and their busy schedules, Letourneau said Sarasota Memorial will give nurses “protective time” so they are encouraged to complete the program and are rewarded for it.

“It becomes part of their job instead of something extra to do,” she said.

Organizations also have the responsibility to cultivate an environment, which allows nurses to take care of themselves, Letourneau said. Nursing was already a demanding profession, but the pandemic made it even more taxing and stressful, she said.

“The demand has increased, which leads to increased stress, which leads to increased burnout and then leads to nurses leaving the profession,” Letourneau said. “And then when we don't have enough nurses. Those that are still here in the hospital setting, feel that obligation to their patients that they have to pick up more shifts, or else who's going to care for these people?”

USF intends to expand the program in future years to reach more nurses, and it was designed to scale to other areas, Letourneau said.

“We've been very intentional and purposeful in the design of this program, as we develop it such that the concepts could remain the same and we can scale this across the Tampa Bay region, we can scale it nationally even,” Letourneau said. “We may need to tailor small pieces to meet the organizational specific needs.”

As the program prepares to launch in January, Letourneau said she hopes it helps change the organizational culture in the health field so nurses can prioritize their wellbeing for better performances in their profession.

“My big goal is to make sure nurses are healthy," Letourneau said. "Because healthy nurses will have a healthy organization and the healthy organization will then increase the health of the community.”

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Leda Alvim