The Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System is one of the largest public healthcare organizations in Florida with over 8,500 staff members across two hospitals.
Like many health systems, it has been struggling to hire and retain healthcare workers over the last few years. It managed to hire 2,349 new staff members in 2021 alone, but it hasn’t been enough to keep up with demand. According to a SMS spokesperson, around 70% of the new hires were nurses or clinical personnel and the other 30% were hospitality workers and other frontline staff. A thousand workers were also hired to prepare for the opening of the Venice campus and oncology tower at the Brian D. Jellison Cancer Institute.
The company says it will now hire around 50 nurses and at least six medical technicians from the Philippines between now and next year. It is part of a strategy to hire more foreign workers amid the ongoing nursing shortage.
“The pandemic really tightened the labor market, so it was about this time last year, during the delta (COVID-19) surge when we expanded that outreach and asked our recruitment agency,” said SMH spokesperson Kim Savage.
The hospital hired six nurses from the Philippines and six medical technicians over the summer and the program turned out to be a major success.
But bringing nurses in from another country can be costly and time-consuming. Savage said the entire process took about a year.
“We do go through quite the process with immigration and the lawyers to demonstrate that we pay them the prevailing market rate, and we go beyond that and we support them with a lot of different programs that would help them acclimate to Florida,” Savage said.
“These are trained nurses, but any time you come into a new country and a new hospital, there are always specific policies and procedures they have to learn as well.”
The hospital says all the nurses and medical workers from the Philippines have college degrees and are fluent in English. But now they will need to get certified in the state of Florida to start working at the hospital. They will also need to receive a social security number to collect a paycheck.
Several other hospitals in Sarasota County have considered this option as well, including HCA Florida Doctors Hospital and HCA Florida Englewood Hospital.
“Recruiting foreign nurses is something we are always considering,” said HCA Florida Sarasota Doctors Hospital CEO Bob Meade. “We are prioritizing recruiting from our local community, and regions closer to home. We are also working with local schools to recruit and train new caregivers, especially our own Galen College of Nursing, since that’s the future of our workforce.”
SMH is focused on recruiting workers from the local community as well. Savage explained that the hospital has doubled down its in-state and nationwide recruiting efforts, but these programs have come up short. It also works closely with local high schools “to inspire more students to pursue a nursing career and with the local Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition to support initiatives that provide scholarships, mentoring and support for nursing students training in the Suncoast region.”
Jackie Gould, the clinical manager of the orthopedic surgical unit in SMH-Venice, noted that the nurses coming from the Philippines are paired with a welcoming committee to help them manage the transition.
Gould knows what it’s like to arrive in a new country. She immigrated to the U.S. herself in 1998 and started working at Sarasota Memorial in February 2021.
“When I moved here, besides the culture shock – it’s a very different way of life,” Gould said. “Just imagine yourself putting everything you have in two suitcases, moving to a different country.”
“It’s basically a very life-changing experience for me, for sure, and I’m sure it will be for them,” Gould said. “The committee wants to provide that team support so we were very excited when we heard there were so many nurses coming here and med techs as well.”
She said nurses often make the trip with two suitcases of possessions and usually need basic necessities once they arrive.
“The things that we ignore – utensils, plates, glasses – they don’t have any of that,” she added. The welcoming committee has been collecting donations from the local community to help the nurses build a new life in the U.S.
“It started with let’s come up with a welcome basket so we can make them feel at home and welcome them and as we thought through the process, now it’s more of a welcome hamper,” Gould said.
Many of the nurses need to be driven to work by their spouses because most women don’t drive in the Philippines, but Gould encourages the new recruits to take driving lessons as well.
For those without any relatives, Gould is networking with the Filipino community in the area to find willing host families.
At work, senior nurses are encouraged to mentor the new recruits as they adapt to a new working environment.
“One of the biggest challenges is the equipment,” Gould said. “Obviously we are way advanced in medical equipment here and set up.”
Many of the nurses aren’t coming directly from the Philippines. Many recently completed assignments in Europe and Canada. The Filipino nurses have been spreading the word about their experience and how the hospital has gone above and beyond to make them feel welcome.
“They’re comparing notes with their peers who ended up in other states, and they were saying, ‘You guys don’t have a welcoming committee, we have a welcoming committee,’” Gould said. “That makes it all worthwhile to go through all this to get things ready for them.”