Nurses under the hammer

IE Focus

6 September 2005

The latest from the U.S.: full-time hospital nurses are auctioning off their services for extra working hours.

There’s a serious shortage of nursing personnel in the U.S. Nursing schools have seen staffs shrink, while graduates fell 20 percent between 1995 and 2003. Meanwhile, of course, the country needs more of them. America’s Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the nation will lack a cool million nurses by 2012.

To help fill this gap, hospitals have turned to an innovative new system. Thanks to a computer program, staff nurses can click on their hospital’s website, where their organization lists the overtime or extra days on offer. The hospital provides the dates; all you do is decide when you want the extra work - and set your price. You just hope your colleagues don’t desire the same days, and that they are charging more than you.

This program has changed the rules of the nursing game. A week in advance, hospitals post hours available on their websites, fixing a maximum price limit. You and your colleagues stake your bets. The lowest bidder wins, and receives an email with the news.

It is, officially, a recruiting tool, and the brainchild of a hospital director in South Carolina – not surprisingly, he’s a big fan of eBay - who was seeking a way to fill the ever-recurring gap in his nursing staff.

Since it offers them the chance to earn more money with flexible hours, it seems to draws good RNs. It gives them more control over their lives and lifestyles.

Something for everyone

They make extra money, and that money is good. Before, when Nursing Chiefs offered extra hours, takers were few. Overtime wasn’t well paid. American nurses get $25 an hour; but auctioning can double it. Hospitals are happy, too. Finding outside nursing help used to mean employing the temp agencies, which charge $65 an hour. Hospitals trim their outsourcing by as much as 75 percent, and the savings can go toward improved patient care. Some clinics say 70 percent of their nursing staff are signed up on the auctioning program. Others quote surveys showing increased patient satisfaction; being treated by hospital staff, rather than temporary employees, makes for happier customers.

Inhouse competition, they say, is not cutthroat. When colleagues see you’ve chosen certain hours, they don’t underbid you. Instead, nurses maintain, they choose other days. A certain brotherhood or sisterhood, is operative.

Other countries - England, Australia and Canada - have expressed interest. And workers in diverse sectors, from radio technicians to pharmacists and masseurs, are eyeing the revolution with interest. Maybe even doctors will get on the bandwagon one day.

The only ones not seduced are, predictably, the unions. They want more employment. Instead of plastering over the wound with auctioned hours, they feel, hospitals should hire more full-time nurses, who will be well-rested and well paid.

The American Nurses Association agrees. “It’s true that nurses control their time better and hospitals spend less. But we’d still prefer to see more full-time personnel,” the group says.


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