Health care systems nationwide, along with the communities they serve, have experienced nursing shortages for many years. While the COVID pandemic helped put a spotlight on the need for more nurses, the shortage is nothing new.
Mercy Fort Smith is no exception. Chief Nursing Officer Stephanie Whitaker said many health care organizations saw core nurses transitioning to travel nursing roles during the pandemic, while some experienced nurses began retiring. Many others stepped away because of the toll the pandemic took on their mental health. And with the ongoing expansion of the emergency department and intensive care unit at Mercy Fort Smith (expected to be complete in 2025), the need for nurses will only continue to grow.
“Health care will continue to change over time, but one thing that will never change is the need for highly skilled nurses who can provide care for the community,” said Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy Hospitals Arkansas. “We commend the nurses who have served at the bedside, providing a valuable service that’s simply irreplaceable.”
Mercy saw a need to rebuild its core nursing staff in innovative ways in order to continue to care for the communities it serves. Under the leadership of Betty Jo Rocchio, senior vice president and system chief nursing officer, Mercy recently redesigned its staffing system by introducing gig workers who can fill in the gaps when the need arises.
The program – called Mercy Works on Demand – is based on when nurses want to work and who they want to work with. First launched in Springfield, Missouri, Mercy Works on Demand is now part of every nursing program in each Mercy community, including Arkansas.
“The appeal is for nurses who are looking for schedules that match their lifestyles,” Stephanie said. “We can attract talented nurses while providing them with the flexibility they need.”
Blake Hattabaugh worked as a night supervisor in the emergency department at Mercy Fort Smith before switching to a gig nursing role about a year ago. For Blake, it was all about being there for his family. “I came out of the supervisory role because I couldn’t do nights anymore,” he said. “I was losing time with my little girl working a night shift.” Blake, who also has two grown sons, added, “I’ve seen how fast the years go by.”
Initially, he planned to get into travel nursing before he found out about Mercy’s gig nursing program. He decided to give it a try – and found out he could make about the same salary while working fewer hours, which now allows him to have more time at home with his family.
For Mercy nurse Taylee Loukota, the gig role came along at just the right time after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. “Thankfully, she’s in remission and is cancer-free,” she said. “Getting this job meant I knew if I needed to take her to any appointments or be with her after a procedure, I had that freedom. The gig program was a big blessing, with the timing of it. The Lord definitely had a hand in it.”
Taylee is a 2020 graduate of the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. She and her husband are expecting their first baby in December, another reason she appreciates the flexibility in her job.
“If there’s a day when we don’t have someone to watch the baby, I have the flexibility to pick up different shifts based on what childcare is available,” she said. “It’s just nice knowing I’m not set to work specific days – I can pick my days and know I have that option.”
This program is ideal for someone who is not looking for benefits such as paid time off or insurance. For Blake and Taylee, that wasn’t an issue. Blake receives benefits through the military after serving seventeen years as a medic before coming to Mercy, while Taylee is able to get insurance through her husband’s employer.
“There are so many nurses who may be a fit for this program,” Stephanie said. “We might see a retired nurse who’s looking to work once or twice a week, or maybe a nurse who’s gone back to school and can only manage a part-time position. Shorter shifts are especially appealing to working parents who have caregiving responsibilities and would prefer not to work a typical twelve-hour nursing shift.”
To pick up shifts, gig nurses use an app that keeps track of which shifts are open. They can work in any department they choose, from the ER to ICU to the critical access hospitals in Booneville, Ozark, Paris and Waldron. They are limited to thirty hours per week, but the idea is to fill the roles that otherwise would be left open. Stephanie said Mercy’s fill rate has increased while both labor costs and the turnover rate have decreased.
“The success of the program is attributed to placing more hands at the bedside while decreasing the workload across all of nursing, which impacts both co-workers and patients,” she said. And the extra help, combined with the new scheduling tool, has freed managers to focus more on helping the nurses in their units.
Gig nurses go through the same interview process that a full-time Mercy co-worker does to make sure they are a fit for the organization, Stephanie added. Both Blake and Taylee said they work regularly with other gig nurses. “I’ve seen a lot of people go to gig nursing who previously worked full time,” Blake notes. “They see the advantages of it, and for whatever reason they can’t do the schedule they were doing before, they see that gig is a great option.”
Fueling an Interest
Stephanie says a strong nursing workforce can be created by building interest at an early age. In 2021, Mercy and Baptist Health collaborated on a $1 million gift to the Peak Innovation Center’s health care sciences program, which features a high-fidelity simulation lab with testing room, collaborative lab spaces and more. Peak offers concurrent credit training programs for students in eleventh and twelfth grades in practical nursing and responsive medicine through a partnership with the Western Arkansas Technical Center at UAFS.
Mercy and Baptist also offer opportunities for hands-on learning for even younger students. Eighth graders at Darby Middle School who are part of the Health Sciences Academy began their first classes at Mercy this past August. Classes are held for several hours each morning and provide hands-on, in-person opportunities for advanced learning about health care. Seventh graders who are also part of the program attend classes at Baptist Health. Mercy also teams up with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences each summer to host Medical Applications in Science for Health (MASH), which provides high school-age participants two weeks of hands-on learning and unique observation opportunities in many different departments at the hospital.
For more information about Mercy Works on Demand, visit careers.mercy.net or contact Mary Hollis at Mary.Hollis2@mercy.net.. To learn more about Mercy Fort Smith’s nurse residency program, email Debbie Hewett, director of critical care service, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about the Health Sciences Academy at fortsmithschools.org/domain/4066 or email Principal Jason Meharg at email@example.com. For more on MASH, email Pat Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org.