COEUR d’ALENE — The Coeur d’Alene Regional Chamber, in collaboration with North Idaho College and Kootenai Health, held a public panel discussion Thursday about the regional health care workforce and related challenges.

About 75 people in the Edminster Student Union Building heard how the local college and health care system are struggling to find workers.

The forum, called “Community Conversations: The Health of Our Community,” was the first in a series.

Jamie Smith, Kootenai Health chief executive officer, said he has only been at his desk for nine days but he has plans to bring world-class health care to North Idaho.

“I really believe we can be the best small health system in the country,” Smith said. 

NIC President Nick Swayne said staffing challenges Kootenai Health faces can be alleviated to some extent by proactive measures.

He said a starting point is for students to earn their degrees and have opportunities to work close to home.

Swayne said the regional growth adds pressure to the health care system, so the college “has to be extremely efficient in training the next generation of health  care workers.”  

He said the college is working to reduce financial barriers for students and maximize student support.

NIC’s associate dean of nursing, Erlene Pickett, said in her 44 years of working in the industry, she has not seen such a workforce shortage. She said recruiting people is extremely hard because the college doesn’t offer enough to stay competitive.

“Many of our faculty have to work outside of the college as well,” Pickett said. “It is certainly a problem because we can’t offer the courses because we don’t have enough faculty to teach them.”

She said faculty at NIC makes about $12,000 to $20,000 less than the industry standard, but a salary study is underway.

Chief Nursing Officer Kelly Espinoza joined Kootenai Health in July 2022. She said a lot of the challenges are part of the fallout from the COVID pandemic.

“The post pandemic world in health care is very different,” Espinoza said. “So we have to be able to be nimble and innovative when solving problems.”

She said Kootenai Health has had to rely on traveling nurses to boost the workforce.  

“We were struggling to recruit new workers,” she said.

Espinoza said partnerships have helped funnel workers into the employee pipeline.

She said KH created apprenticeship programs to attract students while they are finishing a course of study.

“Conditions are improving, but challenges still exist,” Espinoza said.

Eva Hernandez, executive director for People with Kootenai Health, said KH reworked methods of recruitment and started showcasing incentives.  

“We also need to show potential employees there are other jobs besides just clinical positions,” Hernandez said. 

She said they need to consider the needs of a younger generation.

“We need to make students and workers feel wanted and accepted so they feel comfortable in the working environment,” she added.

Swayne said a partnership with KH will help create opportunities that will keep people learning and working in the local community.

Swayne said NIC’s nursing program shows a 100% success rate, and the rate has been over 90% for over 20 years.

Panelists agreed that having wrap-around services in place can help students and workers deal with issues such as housing, child care and food.

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