It’s a strategy that may not have been borne out of the pandemic, but treating COVID-19 patients certainly accelerated the use of patient care assistants in hospitals.
Patient care assistants — hospital-trained, front-line care providers — help to extend the reach of registered nurses and help to fill gaps in the availability of certified nursing assistants, or CNAs.
PCA programs also provide an entry point for people interested in health care. Participants earn a salary while undergoing training.
Marcelo Fernandez, a PCA at UCHealth Long’s Peak Hospital in Longmont, is one such beneficiary of the training program, who in turn provides benefits to patients and co-workers at the hospital as he helps share the patient care load.
Fernandez was a patient transporter who developed an interest in providing care to patients.
“I found out I was really good at it,” he said of his exposure to patient care. “I’m quick.”
Fernandez is studying to work in the nuclear medicine field and may end up elsewhere in medicine. But he knows he wants to make health care his livelihood; he enjoys drawing a paycheck while he studies, and he enjoys the interaction he has with patients.
UCHealth, like virtually every other provider of medical services in the nation, is short of nurses. Even before the pandemic, hospitals had difficulty finding enough nurses. Nursing schools had trouble finding instructors; waiting lists of potential nursing students became commonplace.
According to UCHealth, the U.S. will be short about 100,000 nurses by 2025. Colorado will need about 10,000 more nurses than will be available by that time.
“One issue we kept running into when we asked ourselves about the shortage of certified nursing assistants was that people just weren’t looking at careers in health care because of the cost of training and the anxiety of attending college,” Judy Davidson, nursing support program coordinator for UCHealth, said in a written statement. “We realized we could train people with little to no experience in our own environment, allowing them to get hands-on clinical experience to meet the needs of hospitalized patients and interdisciplinary teams.”
A patient care assistant works alongside nursing staff to provide direct patient care. The job includes monitoring vital signs, assisting patients with activities of daily living and mobility, and other patient-care tasks delegated by the registered nurse. PCAs function in the same role as a CNA on acute care units.
“Nursing assistants provide approximately 70% of direct patient care in hospital settings. When units have enough PCAs and CNAs to meet patient care needs, nurses are able to focus on their patients’ medical needs. With all staff able to practice at the top of their scope, UCHealth hopes to reduce burnout and turnover in all patient care roles,” said Davidson.
Since the program launched in late 2021, UCHealth has hired about 200 PCAs across the system. PCAs do not require certification or experience but need to be 18 years of age and have a GED or high school diploma.
Fernandez, a Chicago native, has a bachelor’s degree in another field and has chosen to make health care his career. He’s completed 40 hours of classroom instruction and 156 hours of clinical experience — all while paid a salary.
“They (UCHealth staff) care about the development of their people. Unless I get kidnapped or fired, I’m not going to leave LPH,” he said.
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