Of the largest hospital systems in Maine, only one other is looking for nurses overseas right now.

Eastern Maine Healthcare System, now known as Northern Light Health, also recruits internationally, using staffing agencies to connect with nurses from Nigeria, Ireland, Jamaica and other countries over the past few years. Thirteen have been hired permanently. Twenty-six are working at Northern Light under an agency contract and may be hired by the hospital system after about two years or so. Eleven are set to start in the coming months.

But while St. Mary’s and Northern Light are the only large hospital systems in Maine searching for nurses overseas, they certainly aren’t the only ones trying to get creative.

Central Maine Health Care’s formed an “earn while you learn” program, giving student nurses a job within the hospital system so they can more easily earn a living while going to school.

At MaineGeneral, officials have started a summer internship program that pays student nurses to job shadow in operating rooms, cancer care, long-term care and other areas. The goal: Get students excited about finishing their nursing degree and about all the possibilities at MaineGeneral.

MaineGeneral also gives current nurses time to pursue their own quality improvement projects, like finding a way to stop patients from falling or eliminating bed sores. The hope is nurses will feel more fulfilled and engaged and will advance in their careers.

And maybe the $3,500 to $5,000 they get for completing their projects will help, too.

“It’s a win-win because they get that incentive, but the organization benefits because projects all contribute to high-quality care,” said Chief Nursing Officer Jennifer Riggs.

Some MaineHealth hospitals now pay people an hourly wage and benefits to attend a nine-week certified nursing assistant course — there’s a shortage of CNAs in Maine, too. If they work at MaineHealth as a CNA, they can get some help taking the next career step; MaineHealth will help pay for nursing school.

And because Maine also can’t find enough nursing professors — teaching doesn’t pay as well as nursing, and colleges need a lot of teachers to meet the low student-teacher ratios required of clinical courses — MaineHealth is partnering with Saint Joseph’s College in Standish to provide all the clinical teachers for Maine Medical Center staff who want to become nurses and have enrolled at Saint Joseph’s.

“With that, St. Joseph’s is actually able to expand the number of students it can accept. That’s not going to solve the nursing shortage, but if we do this in multiple programs, it will help a little bit,” said Marge Wiggins, the chief nursing officer. “We’re constantly looking with ways to partner with the schools.”

Nursing schools, too, are looking for innovative ways to address the state’s nursing shortage.

Earlier this month, leaders from the University of Maine System announced an ambitious five-year plan to double the system’s nursing school enrollment from 1,900 students to 3,800. They want to, among other things, waive tuition and fees for needy students who attend Augusta, Fort Kent and Presque Isle campuses and expand nursing education opportunities in Rumford, Brunswick and other towns.

System leaders said some of their plans, including expanding science labs and nursing simulation spaces, are pending voter approval of a $49 million bond that will be listed as Question 4 on the ballot this November.

The Maine College of Health Professions — CMHC’s school in Lewiston — is promoting its two-year program that allows students to become nurses with an associate’s degree rather than a bachelor’s. For people looking to change careers or who need a flexible schedule, the college offers night and weekend classes for that associate’s degree.

The school also plans to slash the time that military medics, paramedics and others with medical experience have to spend in school to become registered nurses. Starting next summer, those who complete a 10-week course can skip the entire first year of college.

Many in nursing say no single effort will solve Maine’s looming crisis, but they believe all of them together have a chance.

“I am 100 percent convinced there is nothing Maine can’t do when we put our mind to it,” said CMHC’s Mary-Anne D. Ponti, who has worked in nursing for 38 years. “Together, yes, that’s my goal. Because, you know what? I’m going to want to retire one of these days. And I want to make sure that my successor and nursing leadership successor and bedside staff are all in place to do it.”

– Lindsay Tice

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