Recruiting Health Center Staff: Start Early!

by Linda Ebner Erceg, R.N., M.S., P.H.N.

"Where do I find a camp nurse?"

"Finding Health Center staff? That's the hardest recruitment job!"

"The campers will be here next week; I need someone now!"

Recruiting personnel for the camp health center is challenging. In most cases, we're asking professional people to unplug from their routine world, accept less salary than they make in other settings, and work in a setting with minimal support instead of the advanced environment of today's medical complexes. Yet camp health work can be enormously rewarding. Professionals have opportunities to impact youth on a day-to-day basis with direct feedback as to the effectiveness of provided care. Camp health centers place emphasis on wellness, not pathology. The setting values prevention as much as treatment, if not more so. Providing health care at camp, a setting that celebrates the natural environment, also feeds the spirit. The experience is well worth marketing to nurses, physicians, and other care providers.

But how does one convince potential employees to even consider the job, let alone apply? Where does one look for potential health center staff? What strategies work best and which have a low return for effort—or dollars—expended?

Know What Kind of Provider Your Camp Needs

Many camps start with needing a physician (M.D.) and/or registered nurse (R.N.). Additional staff might include students studying nursing, emergency medical personnel, people with wilderness credentials, or more professionals (R.N., M.D.). There are strengths and challenges to each type of provider. Some are credentialed to handle medications, others are not. Some are excellent in emergencies, others are better with illness. Sometimes the wisdom of an experienced person is more valuable than the energy of a youthful provider. Sometimes a mix is needed. Some need laboratory support to function; others are used to "seat of the pants" care-giving.

The point is to know the mix that best suits your camp needs. Articulate that for yourself so your recruitment plan can be shaped to meet your camp needs. Ball and Ball's book, Basic Camp Management (2004), has an excellent chart (p. 201) that summarizes the pluses and minuses of common credentials. Use it to determine the mix of health care staff most advantageous to your camp.

Consider How Many Providers Are Needed

Assuming a "normal" population, consider one health care provider per 100-125 people at camp. Note that this ratio includes staff, not just campers. For most camps, the first provider will be an R.N. or M.D.; beyond that, the mix varies based on camp needs and the acuity of camper health. In addition, the provider-to-client ratio flexes based on factors such as (a) scope of care provided by the camp; (b) health profile of the participants; (c) risk profile of the camp program; and (d) distance between camp and definitive health care.

If you're interested in retaining health center staff, it is important to know that providers most often cite two reasons for not returning to camp. The first, a change in their personal life situation, is something we can do little about. But the second reason—being overworked, having to take care of too many people "all by myself"—is something we can do something about. Perhaps the intervention is as simple as having a health center assistant or assigning a counselor to help at specific times. The point is not only to recruit health center staff but also retain them. If the reason these staff leave camp is something we can do something about, we should be addressing that.

Recruitment Strategies
Let me stress one point right away: there is no one, sure-fire strategy that will consistently work for recruiting. The most effective recruitment strategy is multi-faceted, consistent, and one that takes advantage of opportunities as they emerge.

A list of ideas follows; select those that make the most sense for your camp, the clientele your camp services, your recruitment budget, and the kind of health care professional(s) you need to attract.

Advertising
Nurses interested in camp work often search by Googling "camp nursing." Try doing that is. Note the top three sites and place an electronic ad on those sites. This is where the nurses are going; get your camp job under their eyes!

Also consider paper-based ads but not in national journals. These have a low return for your advertising dollar. Rather, call the Board of Nursing for the state in which your camp is located and ask how to get in touch with the person who edits that Board of Nursing's publication. Place an ad or write a short article for that publication. This costs very little yet your camp ad goes into the hands of every nurse who holds a license from that state. While talking with the Board, find out if there's a retired nurses association; get an announcement in their publication too. Do the same for the state's Association of School Nurses and the state Association of Nurse Practitioners. The state newsletters are read with diligence, and the readers often already have a license to practice for that state.

Posting health care positions on the Peace Corps Web site is another good option (www.peacecorps.gov). These volunteers, some of which are medical and nursing staff, have a skill set that's a great match to camp. They're used to making do with few supplies, to working with people from various backgrounds, and to caring for clients with minimal resources.

A word about writing your advertisement copy—talk about the job from an employee perspective, not from a camper perspective. You want to attract a health care professional who is interested in working, so tell them what's expected and what you provide for benefits. I've fielded calls from disgruntled nurses who say the camp promised "… a daily swim, horseback riding, and singing around the evening campfire" only to discover that wasn't possible because the health center was so busy. Be realistic and fair in your advertising.

An advertising discussion would not be complete without mention of radio ads. Get campers to write a script, something that teases the listener into your recruitment message. Use camper voices to deliver that message. nonprofit camps may be able to get radio support as a public service announcement (no cost). Choose radio stations that people listen to on their way to and from work.

Word-of-Mouth Recruitment
This is the best strategy. It's responsible for getting more nurses to camp than any other. Bring your returning staff and former health center staff into your recruitment process. These folks know your camp and the kind of person who'd be a good fit for your program. Offer a financial incentive, maybe $100 for finding a person who works four or more weeks, and urge them to use their network to find your health center staff.

Consider expanding this to other groups of people. Several camps collect career data about camper parents. Send those with a health care background a letter, inviting them to consider a camp experience for themselves as well as their child. If it compliments your camp mission, place "want ads" in church bulletins or on Synagogue e-Letters; get the faith community working for you. Write a letter to former health center staff—the ones that did well—and ask them for referrals and recruitment ideas.

Unusual Places
Think out-of-the-box. For example, there's an American College Health Association (www.acha.org) to which college and university student health center staff belong. These facilities often close for the summer or cut back on hours and staff. They're great people to recruit for camp! They're used to working with young people who are away from home and are used to the autonomy needed to function at camp. Talk with these people; make them aware of what your camp offers.

Also consider THE hot activity at your camp. Maybe everyone does tripping or canoeing or bike trips or horseback riding or pottery. Adults have these hobbies too. Health care professionals often have discretionary income that allows them to pursue their hobby. Consider what organization adults might belong to or what magazine they subscribe to for that hobby area. Target recruitment to this community, building on their love for that activity as the attraction to camp practice.

Talk to your State's AARP office. Today's retired population is vigorous—and some are R.N.s and M.D.s. Get information about your camp opportunities to this group. A grandma and grandpa at camp can be a great boon for lonely campers. There are plenty of young counselor legs to run fast when that need arises, but their coach could be an older adult who brings experience and a level head to camp health care.

Partner With Schools of Nursing
Admittedly, this strategy takes time and effort to organize but, once in place, can reap many benefits. Schools of Nursing, especially those that offer baccalaureate degrees, have been challenged to place students in community practice settings for clinical experiences. Our camps are a great match for this. Often nurse managed, the camp health center has a lot to offer. But most nurse educators don't know this. Autumn is the time to talk with them. Write a letter that introduces the potential of your camp becoming a clinical site. Follow that letter with a campus visit. Talk about partnering with the school of nursing to provide needed student experiences while they, in turn, provide health care to campers and staff. The silver lining is that most undergrad clinical experiences include an instructor who is an R.N. Nice!

A series of ideas has just been presented, some of which probably grabbed your attention. Strategically plan a recruitment process that uses three or more of the ideas to identify health professionals who may be interested in camp work. A multifaceted approach is needed as well as a recruitment plan nimble enough to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Finally, since many health professionals must plan time away from their routine work in order to be at camp, start recruiting now, in the autumn and early winter. Your potential staff must often request summer vacation or leave in January or February; you want your camp needs to be part of their plans.

Reference
Ball, A., & Ball, B (2004). Basic Camp Management. Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.

Linda Ebner Erceg, R.N., M.S., P.H.N., is assistant director of health and risk management for Concordia Language Villages, Bemidji, Minnesota, and executive director of the Association of Camp Nurses. In addition to writing this column, Erceg authored the seminar, "Managing Camp Health Services," and is part of the "Healthy Camps" injury-illness surveillance research project. She is a frequent speaker at conferences, a standards visitor, and serves on ACA's National Board and National Education Committee. Contact her via e-mail at erceg@campnurse.org.

Originally published in the 2006 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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