Giving Thought: Growing our own healthcare workforce

Allison Alexander is the Director Strategic Partnerships and Communication at Aspen Community Foundation. ACF with the support of its donors works with a number of nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Throughout the year, we will work to highlight nonprofits in the region.
Allison Alexander/Courtesy photo

Businesses, non-profits, and government agencies in our region are all wrestling with the need for qualified staff to fill positions. Given the housing shortage, attracting and retaining staff in our community has become increasingly difficult.

At the same time, many students in our community graduate from high school without a plan for their future or financial ability to pursue higher education or training. These students often have housing and desire to stay with their family and friends in the region.

Organizations across the region are beginning to reframe these “struggles” as opportunities, innovatively leveraging the potential of residents of the area already here but lacking a skill set that can be trained. By investing in a “grow your own” strategy, organizations are noticing a positive impact even in the early stages.

Aspen Valley Hospital (AVH) is one such organization. In its origin story, the hospital was constructed to meet the needs of the community. Aspen’s first hospital construction was completed in 1891 as a result of the fundraising efforts of the Citizens’ Hospital Committee, relying on the assets of the community at the time, the mining companies, and local residents alongside investments from the city and county. What began as a small hospital with 11 to 12 beds has grown to now support healthcare in over 25 different fields of medicine, all with the support of the community. For over a hundred years, AVH has continued to evolve to meet the needs of our growing community.

AVH, like all healthcare facilities across the nation, faced tremendous difficulties and changes during the pandemic. Like many of its peers, it experienced staff turnover and saw an increase in nurses leaving their positions. Like many other hospitals, it began to rely more heavily on travel nurses. While these nurses are able to fill temporary gaps, the revolving door does not translate into continuity of care for patients. Not only is continuity of care a best practice, but staff at AVH feel that as a community hospital, familiarity is important.

COVID ultimately sparked AVH to consider how to better support our community through its staffing model. AVH was seeking to build a model that not only entices newer nurses to join the hospital, but also sees it as a place for a successful and long career.

A nurse residency program emerged from these wonderings. Today, this program accepts four to five new registered nurses for a one-year intensive training with dedicated one-on-one nurse mentors and preceptors. The goal of the program is to provide a warm entry into the nursing profession and promote longevity.

“Typically, about 50% of new registered nurses (RNs) leave the profession after their first year. AVH will provide dedicated nurse preceptors to manage assignments and ensure exposure to adequate clinical opportunities to develop skills, regular evaluations, and weekly goal setting aimed at professional growth. In addition, AVH will partner each nurse resident with a nurse mentor to serve as a coach, advisor, friend, cheerleader, and counselor. Our goal is that these new RNs will grow in confidence and competence in a supportive environment and flourish in their profession,” according to Diana Bulman, President and Chief Development Officer of Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation.

In addition to the nurse residency program, AVH has launched another program to address staffing issues, a medical assistant program. This apprenticeship program is aimed at young people, with a high school or General Education Development (GED), who think they may want to enter the healthcare profession.

Bulman says, “Advanced education is often a barrier to exposure – and occasionally to diversity in the profession. We have started two apprenticeship programs – one for medical assistants and will launch one for phlebotomists shortly – to give them an opportunity to learn here and ‘graduate’ with a national certificate that enables them to work in any doctor’s office or lab. We will increase their pay at various milestones throughout the program to encourage them to stick with the program. We received a Colorado Workforce Solutions grant for the first year to help with a stipend for bus passes, scrubs, a computer, or even daycare.”

Access to opportunity and low-risk exploration are two ways AVH is hoping to shift outcomes both for the hospital but also the larger community. The apprenticeship program allows young people opportunities to explore careers in medicine while getting paid. AVH believes this support has the potential to shift economic outcomes for young people while also bolstering their organizational success with staff who have experience growing within the hospital.

“Both initiatives are our efforts to both ‘grow our own’ and provide young people with a guided environment to see if healthcare is the right fit for future education and open doors to economic advancement,” says Bulman.

Access to high-quality medical care is imperative for a healthy community. Consistent care has been shown to improve health outcomes. AVH is committed to exploring initiatives supporting our region’s well-being and has dedicated its resources to these efforts. While they have made initial investments to launch these programs, expand these initiatives, and ensure their sustainability, philanthropic support is becoming increasingly more important and necessary.

Just as the hospital invited the community to support its initial founding through philanthropic support, they are now asking our community to join them in their efforts to sustain our hospital and community by investing in a workforce with roots in our region. As more organizations seek to “grow their own” we as a community have an opportunity to show our support for these investments as an opportunity to ensure our community sustainability.