“Behind the South” – Mississippi Today’s Devna Bose Talks About Mississippi’s High Nurse Vacancy Rates

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About Devna Bose

Devna Bose is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied print journalism and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Devna reported on education at Chalkbeat Newark and at the Post and Courier’s Education Lab, and on race and social justice at the Charlotte Observer. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Star-Ledger and the Associated Press, and she has appeared on WNYC to discuss her reporting. Devna has been awarded for her coverage of K-12 education in the Carolinas. Bose recently wrote a story on Mississippi nurses leaving for greener pastures. We spoke with with her to learn more about this issue and the current state of healthcare in Mississippi.

Q&A

To start, tell me about some of the most unique health community related stories that you’ve covered in Mississippi?

I’ve done some really interesting work, I think since I’ve been here. The state of rural health care is really fragile in Mississippi right now. I recently published a story, last week or a few weeks ago which tells the story of what’s happened to rural hospitals in Mississippi. I visited, four hospitals throughout the state, and kind of ask them how are they being affected when it comes to daily operations? I think a lot of people have written about how rural hospitals are at risk of closing in Mississippi, but people don’t actually know  what that looks like and what that means. I talked to hospitals at different stages of closure, like some are potentially weeks away from closing and others like have a little more money in the bank, but things still aren’t looking good. Getting to tell that story and meet all of the people who keep these hospitals running these centers of health care and economy for these small Mississippi towns, getting to meet them and hear directly from them about the challenges they’re up against is really enlightening.

How has the registered nurse vacancy skyrocketing in Mississippi compared to other health stories you’ve covered as a reporter?

I think any time numbers have gone up that drastically, it’s pretty newsworthy.  So this story was born out of hearing this tidbit in a public meeting about how UMMC had hundreds of open jobs. It’s one of those things that can just get buried under the rug. But it was pretty interesting to us, and we decided, let’s ask as many hospitals as we can around the state how many vacancies they had,  and many declined to tell us. But through our reporting, we discovered that the Mississippi Hospital Association actually puts out a report and reviews and surveys these hospitals, and that’s where we discovered that since they started monitoring, these numbers are at an all-time high, which is extremely newsworthy, especially coming off of the worst part of the pandemic and everything we read about what nurses and other healthcare workers went through during the past 2 to 3 years and are still going through. We just knew it was a really important story in terms of severity.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of covering a story like this? 

I think that the numbers stories are maybe not difficult but they’re a little harder to empathize with. But when you have numbers that drastic, I think the correlation between the numbers and how this is affecting people is very clear. So it’s not quite a black and white data story because it’s the effect that this shortage is having on hospitals and subsequently people who seek care at Mississippi hospitals that kind of brings it back around for me.

Just from talking to different health officials, what was your biggest takeaway on the affect that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on nurse turnover rates in Mississippi?

I think it’s always been a hard job. I think that, nurses have always had to give their all everyday. But I feel like I’m stating the obvious that COVID just pushed them to their brink. They were being asked to work these inhumane sort of hours and see these really traumatic things day-to-day. But I don’t think any of them really anticipated that they would be working through a pandemic. I just think it really makes you evaluate what you deserve out of a job and what you can to tolerate out of a job. I think a lot of them would say that they are burnt out and they’re not being paid enough.

The nurse shortage is clearly a state-wide problem, but in your opinion which part of Mississippi has  been the most impacted by the shortage? And why?

I think everything sort of impacts the Delta a little more severely. I don’t think the Delta was like, the worst in all categories, but I just feel like the effects of a shortage or the effects of anything of a rural hospital closure, of not enough nurses; that’s all going to affect the Delta a little more severely because they already have such poor health outcomes in a state with some of the worst health outcomes. You know, they have hospitals on the brink of closure in a state where a lot of hospitals are on the brink of closure. So the state of health care I think has always been a little more tenuous in rural Mississippi and places like the Delta.

What are some of the most viable solutions that the state legislature is trying to come up with to help increase the nursing workforce and prevent more Mississippi hospitals from closing?

In January, Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann had a plan to improve rural health care in Mississippi. He was advocating for four bills, two of which are related to nurses. So Senate bill 2373 was passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor in early March. I think Tate Reeves signed it on March 8th. So it gives six million; they’re still kind of hammering out the details about money still because the budget is not final. But I think it’ll end up giving around six million for a nurse loan repayment program, and they’re hoping that’s going to help with the shortage. So, students who take out loans to go to nursing school will get some amount of money paying those back if they work here in this state. Another bill that’s not final yet is Senate Bill 2371, which is going to give somewhere between 16 to 25 million to help with healthcare fellowship and residency programs across the state, including a nursing or allied health community college grant program, which I think is aiming to like kind of improve the infrastructure we have um in terms of in terms of community colleges in this state. I think that bill is meant to subsidize more teachers and improving those programs. So that’s another one. But I think nurses would tell you they just need more money. I mean, hospitals say they need more money. Nurses say they want to be paid more. I do think this all goes back to money.