Business

KCH Looks to Grow Staff Through Specialty Hires, New Accredited Program

By Tiffany DeMasters
November 9, 2021, 2:00 PM HST
* Updated November 9, 2:34 PM
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With COVID-19 cases on the steady decline, Kona Community Hospital is looking at long-term solutions to expand and bolster its workforce.

As the last of the federally-funded health care workers leave the island this week, KCH has begun efforts in building out staff, from starting recently graduated nurses in specialty units to offering a nine-month surgical tech program.

Stephanie Irwin, KCH Director of Education, said the hospital is looking at hiring in more specialty areas, including the emergency room. For the first time in KCH’s recent history, the hospital hired a newly graduated nursing student from Hawaiʻi Community College at Palamanui in 2020 into the behavioral health unit, which is considered a specialty.

“There’s a nursing shortage and being able to start someone in a specialty area is exciting,” Irwin told Big Island Now.

KCH hires about three nurses a year from the nursing program at Palamnui. Officials say these new hires typically work six months in the Med Surge Acute unit before moving into a specialty.

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The last graduating class at Palamanui in May brought in three nurses as RPN II’s. Aside from the specialty unit hire, the remaining two were assigned to Med Surge Acute units.

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“The newly graduated nurses are assigned to a senior nurse who will orient them for six months,” said KCH spokesperson Judy Donovan. “Once their six-month orientation is completed, they will be RPN IIIs.”

Kathleen Kotecki, retired associate professor of nursing from Palamanui, said while there is a need for nurses, there is a shortage in positions available for newly graduated nursing students. The idea of moving new nurses directly into specialty units may help with that as KCH is not limited to just those positions offered to new health care workers.

“Looking at the big picture, we’d have to expand the program so we could graduate more students,” Kotecki said. “Getting more admissions to the nursing program is key. We need new, younger nurses.”

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Additionally, Donovan said the goal is to hire three graduated nurses every year with the hope to increase the number to five.

“We will continue this practice in an effort to grow workforce from (within) our local community,” Donovan said.

In an effort to grow from within, KCH will begin its newly accredited surgical tech program, which is set to start in August 2022 with three students, who are currently employed at KCH. Upon completion of the program, the health care workers will be certified to be integral members of the surgical team at KCH.

Irwin said this will be the only program of its kind on the Big Island. It will also be the first accredited program launched at KCH.

“This is a specialized employee position that is difficult to fill,” Donovan said. “Currently, we have a full-time surgical technologist who is also an instructor. We recognized the opportunity to develop a program that will fill an existing employee gap.”

Irwin, a Palamanui nursing graduate, has worked at KCH for 12 years. While it can be wonderful to hire nurses outside the state, Irwin said it can also be hit and miss as they come and end up not staying on the island.

“But when we hire within, itʻs amazing how long they stay,” Irwin said.

KCH currently has 10 full-time positions open, including in the ICU, ER, floats and imaging. Additionally, the in-house lab, Clinical Laboratories is struggling with staffing.

Donovan said the hospital started with 42 FEMA-funded clinicians during the spike of the coronavirus cases over the summer, including critical care nurses, respiratory therapists and imaging staff. Nine of those workers remain as a majority of the health care workers left two weeks ago.

With their contract officially ending on Thursday, Nov. 13, Donovan said four of the FEMA-funded workers have expressed interest in converting to a standard agency contract.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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