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In 2006, Kaiser Permanente Hayward Medical Center earned a bragging right that every hospital chief executive officer covets: highest retention rate for nurses in the local market. In fact, the 210-staffed-bed hospital retained 80 percent of the 140 nurses it hired during an 18-month span beginning in 2005, allowing it to drastically decrease its use of travel nurses.

Several strategies were at play, but none more important than a nurse mentor program implemented at the hospital courtesy of the California Nurses Foundation. “The program is a primary driver and has had a definite impact on the increased retention rate,” says Joanne Mette, assistant administrator of patient care services.

The foundation, an affiliate of the California Nurses Association, launched the program three years ago to address the state’s nursing shortage. Funded by philanthropic grants, the mentor program—now in seven hospitals—is set up as a research project to determine whether mentoring reduces staff nurse turnover.

Early results are encouraging: Newly hired nurses who do not participate in the mentor program are seven times more likely to leave their jobs in the first two years than their colleagues who have a mentor. “Even we were surprised by that,” says Joyce Mills, RN, the foundation’s director of program development.

Despite the clinical components of their education, new-to-the-profession nurses often need mentoring because jumping into the job can be overwhelming. “With people rushing to try to address the nursing shortage, we have expedited nursing education to the point that, in many instances, the nurses coming out of the program are not prepared to walk into the hospital and start working,” says Anna Mullins, RN, DNSc, director of the California Nurses Foundation.

While they may have the necessary technical skills, the critical-thinking skills and self-confidence of new nurses are frequently insufficient to handle the extremely ill patients and the chronically understaffed and overworked nursing environment of today’s hospitals.

“There has always been the assumption that older nurses help younger nurses, but in most organizations and most units, this does not happen anymore,” Mills says. “The staffing is so tight, people are so busy and they don’t have the skills to do it in the way that is supportive.”

The mentor program pairs experienced nurses to work with new nurses for a period of several months or even a few years. The mentors are paid a stipend, and the mentor relationship occurs outside the normal shift.

At Hayward, where more than 40 nurses have been mentored since the program began, Mette says mentors typically spend at least three hours with their young counterparts each month.

“The mentorship can happen in the break room or in the cafeteria or after the shift at the local whatever,” Mullins says. The topics of conversation range from coping with the death of a patient to handling a caregiving mistake to dealing with difficult physicians and anything else that can throw off a nurse’s equilibrium. The mentors, who must have at least three to five years’ experience, are trained on how to coach new nurses in a supportive way. A surprise side effect of the program: Renewed commitment to the nursing profession by the mentors.

“One of the things we did not anticipate is that the nurses who became mentors felt such a renewed sense of appreciation and a sense of hope that their retention is improving,” Mullins says. “Some of them are going on to become clinical educators because of this experience.”

As the research phase of the mentor program ends, some participating hospitals are contracting with the foundation to continue the program. The foundation is also looking for ways to expand the program throughout California and even into other states.
—Lola Butcher