There’s a shortage of nurses across the nation, but in the El Paso-Juárez region, the need is both acute and chronic.

El Paso’s Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center estimates there are currently 100 open nursing positions. In Juárez, the FEMAP School of Nursing reports the ratio of nurses to physicians is 0.9 percent-to-1. Compare that with El Paso’s ratio, 5:1, and the rest of the nation, 10:1.

“The prediction is with the aging population and more chronic illness, the nursing shortage would continue into the future,” said Jeanne Novotny, founding dean of the new Gayle Greve Hunt School of Nursing. “It’s a very serious issue.”

In the U.S., the shortage stems from a lack of nursing faculty to teach baccalaureate and higher degree programs. Many of the established nurses are retiring and their positions aren’t being filled. In Mexico, one drawback is low wages.

“The nurses are not well paid,” said Dr. Enrique Suarez, CEO of Juárez’s FEMAP School of Nursing. “We have to make an improvement in that area.”

Right now nursing educators and leaders are looking at ways to encourage people to pursue the career. At the Gayle Greve Hunt School of Nursing the biggest recruitment tool is a state-of-the-art facility, complete with high-tech patient simulators and the use of modern technology in nearly every aspect of the intense, accelerated curriculum.

Currently 85 students are enrolled and 40 more are expected next semester. Growth projections estimate the schools will have 500 by 2020.

“I think it’s really important for people to understand how much this school of nursing will contribute to the economic development of El Paso,” Novotny said.

Just about five miles south of El Paso, FEMAP in Juárez has been around since 1993, working inside Hospital de la Familia. The location could only hold about 200 students, even though enrollment over the last couple of years has averaged 500. In the last two years, FEMAP turned away more than 200 qualified applicants due to space limitations. But not any longer.

The FEMAP Foundation, which supports the region with health care, education and other initiatives, is working on a bi-national capital campaign to raise $15 million to build a new school of nursing and remodel and expand Hospital de la Familia. Plans for the nursing school include a 50,000-square-foot facility that can handle more than 1,000 students.

The organization has already raised $8.4 million and in February the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation pledged another $500,000.

“It’s a dream,” Suarez said. “We never thought the school would reach the level it’s achieving. We’re working to be a better school every year. We are very, very excited.”

FEMAP attributes its growing student body to a modest tuition – $42 per month – aimed at a low-income population. Still, scholarships are offered. The school recruits and attracts bilingual, U.S. citizens because of the attractive cost and comprehensive curriculum.

“Out of 100 students, 94 will stay in Mexico, primarily Juárez, primarily in our hospitals,” said FEMAP Foundation executive director Anna Aleman. “We are creating our own human capital.”

The goal is similar in El Paso, which has a higher number of associate-degree nurses. Most hospitals require baccalaureate degrees. The Hunt School of Nursing recognizes this and offers a “RN to BSN Program.” Nurses with associate degrees are actively recruited, including nursing students attending El Paso Community College. The school’s director encourages them to go back to school and get their nursing degrees.

“Nurses are critical,” Novotny said, “and the type of nurses that hospitals need today, because of the complexity of care, are nurses that are prepared at the onset with a baccalaureate degree.”

Novotny says her goal is to create an environment of success, where graduates can go on to get their masters and doctoral degrees and become nurse practitioners and professors.

“We do not have enough master-degree nurses, and even fewer of them have doctoral degrees,” Novotny said. “To become tenured at a university, the minimum you have to have is a doctoral degree.”

At the Hunt School of Nursing, there are open faculty positions and the school is looking for applicants. But nationwide, they’re not easy to find. The school brings in visiting professors – one recently from the University of Pennsylvania – hoping to recruit them while giving students exposure to think bigger, beyond just bedside nursing.

Looking forward, Novotny wants to reach high school students, sharing with them 200 different jobs that degrees in nursing can offer.

“I personally believe that nursing is the career of the 21st century,” Novotny said. “It’s nurses that are going to do primary care. It’s nurses that have prescriptive authority and they can manage a group of patients. With the number of diabetics in the country, the number of people with issues related to their weight, nurses can do primary care to keep these patients healthy – including the aging population, which is going to explode here. Nurses are the perfect health care providers to take care of these patients.

“It’s nurses that are the backbone of the hospital.”