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Men in nursing

New effort works to diversify the profession's ranks

Jeffrey Melland, a second-year
nursing student at
Monterey Peninsula College

As she looked out over the dozens of newly minted nurses in the 2006 graduating class at Monterey Peninsula College, Debra Schulte-Hacker, director of the Maurine Church Coburn School of Nursing at MPC, realized something was missing: Men.

Six had enrolled in the class two years earlier, but not one made it to graduation. In a profession trying to shed its female-only image, the loss of an entire class of male recruits was troubling.

"I thought it was just unacceptable," Schulte-Hacker says. "So I went back and looked at the statistics."

Schulte-Hacker reviewed the past seven years of graduating nursing classes at MPC. About 6 percent of women who enrolled in that time failed to complete the course of study. But 50 percent of the men dropped out. MPC mirrored male attrition rates for the rest of the country. While 2006 was an especially bad year for men in the MPC nursing program, it was indicative of a larger problem demanding attention.

So MPC and its nursing-school partner, Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, teamed up to find a solution. A new men-in-nursing discussion group was launched at MPC to give members of the program’s statistically underrepresented sex a chance to share experiences, solutions, and support.

Begun in March 2007 with an open forum for nursing students and working nurses, the program has found a loyal following and created a buzz in California’s nursing profession. Leaders and participants in the group have already made presentations to regional and statewide nursing conferences. Suggestions brought up in the group have been incorporated into the MPC nursing program to respond to the needs of male students. Earlier this year, there was a conference on the subject in Monterey, where one of the featured speakers was Dr. Chad O’Lynn, RN, author of the book Men in Nursing.

Jeffrey Melland, a second-year student in the nursing program and a regular participant in the discussion group, says it provides a way for him to connect with other men in his class.

"You kind of feel a little isolated at the start. The class is full of women," Melland says. "Through the group, I got to know the other male members of my class a little bit better. The more interaction you have, the more comfortable you feel."

Although the gatherings can take on the aura of a support group, organizers were careful not to use that tag. When she was first considering how to respond to the high dropout rate, Schulte-Hacker contacted Wayne Lavengood for some male input. Lavengood, who recently retired as manager of Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at Community Hospital after 36 years, had worked with Schulte-Hacker on a number of projects. She asked Lavengood what he thought about the idea of a support group. He rolled his eyes. That was fine if you wanted to ensure that no men showed up, he said. Drawing on his background in behavioral science, Lavengood suggested that the way to attract men into a group would be to offer something more like a task force with a goal-driven agenda that encouraged the men to solve problems and seek solutions.

"I mentioned to her that men often see women asking them to join a support group as a trap to get them to talk about their feelings," Lavengood says. "So instead of doing a support group, I thought, what if we engage men in telling us what the problems are and what issues might influence their ability to be successful in getting through a program."

One suggestion to ensure a big turnout: A free lunch.

There were a dozen male students enrolled when that first session took place, and they all attended. They were joined by five male nurses from Community Hospital. Schulte-Hacker welcomed the group, turned the session over to Lavengood, then left.

One of their first suggestions was that they should find out exactly why dropouts didn’t stick with the program. The group contacted as many as they could to ask what happened. Several said that they continued to hold full-time jobs and had families, and that the added stress of nursing school was simply too much. They also said they felt the school offered little help for their issues. Schulte-Hacker was surprised. The dropouts had never signaled their dissatisfaction before dropping out.

"The reason the faculty didn’t know about it is because the men never told them," Lavengood says. "This is a very supportive faculty. But it wasn’t likely the men would ask for help. They would likely just send an e-mail saying they can’t continue. One of the strategies men use is the ‘I’m out of here’ solution."

One of the academic turnoffs for men in the program was the first clinical rotation that students must do. By long-standing custom, they start in obstetrics at Community Hospital. Many women thrive in that environment. But for many of the men, it was uncomfortable walking into a hospital room where a pregnant woman and her husband waited. Indeed, two of the dropouts from the 2006 class cited the obstetrics experience as a major reason they quit.

That issue provided Schulte-Hacker with a problem she could resolve quickly by simply having male students do their first clinical rotation in a different hospital section. Meanwhile, the group continues to meet once a month under Lavengood’s direction. So far, none of the participants have dropped out of the nursing school program.

Schulte-Hacker says word of the discussion group may already be serving as a catalyst to encourage more men to give nursing a try. Of those accepted into the fall 2008 class, 47 percent are men.

"This is the biggest percentage of male nurses I have ever heard of," says Terril Lowe, vice president of nursing at Community Hospital. "It is a jaw-dropping success."

Lowe says that the men-in-nursing group is still in its early stages. But its early success may be pointing the way to long-term innovations that could help broaden the pool of recruits to a profession historically dominated by women.

"To the extent that we can have the profession be enriched by the perspective and experiences of a diverse group that mirrors the population we serve," Lowe says, "we do a better job of taking care of patients."

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Patrick Riel de Vera, the student