Southwest Washington Medical Center is growing its own qualified nurses. Instead of struggling to find qualified applicants to fill nursing...

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Southwest Washington Medical Center is growing its own qualified nurses.

Instead of struggling to find qualified applicants to fill nursing positions that demand experience, hospitals are providing that experience on site.

Nursing internship programs aim to give registered nurses the necessary experience to take positions that hospitals such as Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, Wash., might otherwise find difficult to fill.

Five nurses recently completed an 18-week perioperative internship at Southwest and are now undertaking a four- to six-month orientation. After that, they will work as full-time operating room nurses.

“We have to grow our own,” said Theresa Mazzaro, nurse recruiter at Southwest.

It’s the fourth class of interns at Southwest since the program started in 2005. The medical center hopes to train as many as 10 RNs through the program each year.

Legacy Health System also offers perioperative nursing internships, as well as internship programs in acute care, critical care and emergency services.

Denise Reese, a clinical educator for the program at Southwest, said operating-room nursing is so specialized that it can take as long as two years for a nurse to feel comfortable in the role.

“It’s hard to get into specialty areas without experience,” she said.

Tara Dunham, a staff nurse who has completed the internship, is a recent nursing-school graduate and said she doesn’t believe she could have gotten a job in the operating room at this point in her career without the internship.

“I don’t know if any of us caught a glimpse of the OR in nursing school,” she said.

The most recent internship class consisted of three nurses who had just completed their RNs and two nurses with experience. None of them was previously working for Southwest, but current employees are eligible.

Kathy Wedgwood drives 2 ½ hours each day for the program. Ken Gruesbeck had been an electrical technician in hospitals for eight years before pursuing nursing. He was most interested in the operating room, which led him to apply for the internship program.

“This is definitely a specialty that you have to develop skills for, and you don’t normally get it through nursing school,” he said.

It’s competitive to get into such programs. Around 70 applications were received for the last round at Southwest. After a screening process, 20 nurses were interviewed and five were enrolled.

Interns are hired as hospital employees, but they are also required to attend lectures, lab sessions and work with preceptors. Upon completion of the program, Reese said, they will have a job even if there is not a posted opening at the hospital. Southwest estimates that each intern receives $50,000 worth of training. In return, interns are expected to make a two-year commitment to the hospital after the training is complete.

Reese said the hospital made the decision to allow new nurses into the program because it benefited both the individuals and the hospital.

“How do we get new OR nurses if we’re saying no right off the bat?” she said. “We couldn’t think of any reasons why it wouldn’t work.”