International Nurse Program Piloted at Winter Haven Hospital
As the new nurses approached the conference room in the Bostick building of Winter Haven Hospital, they were greeted by several of their new colleagues – and the smell of home cooking.
Winter Haven Hospital launched its international nurse program last month, in which nurses from around the world contract with the hospital, and then are eligible to join full time. Winter Haven Hospital is the first hospital in the BayCare Health System to pilot the program.
“There are nursing shortages all over the country right now, including Polk County,” said Lisa Schlagel, director of Nursing Development and Practice for the Polk Region. “Recruitment here tends to be a little more difficult than in metro and coastal areas, so our hospital was a great candidate to establish this program.”
For this program, the hospital partnered with Avant Health Professionals, which recruits and assists nurses in navigating immigration. When the nurses arrive in the United States, Avant provides them with five weeks of focused training at their Maitland location. The training is designed to support each nurse’s successful transition to both the new country as well as a new practice environment. This includes two weeks of cultural acclimation followed by three weeks of clinical training. Their training focuses on medical equipment and patient care processes and procedures that are specific to BayCare. Avant also supports the nurses in other practical ways like teaching them to drive, if needed, and assisting spouses in finding employment. Each nurse is assisted and accompanied by a Trip Support Specialist.
Initially, the hospital wasn’t scheduled to have nurses come in until later this year, but in late 2023, they were notified this had suddenly changed.
“Apparently, there were some hospitals that opted to cancel their Avant nurses after only one year into the contract due to low census,” Schlagel said. “Because of that, we were able to welcome several nurses much sooner than we expected – and what a welcomed blessing that has been.”
The first nurses to join the Winter Haven Hospital team were Taneisha Phillips, a native of Jamaica, who joined the Cardiac Medical-Surgical Unit (Street 3), Betty Salamida and Janet Hufalar, both from the Philippines, who joined the Emergency Department.
To mark their first day on campus, team members from around the hospital gathered in the hallway to enthusiastically welcome the nurses – waving flags from their native countries along with the U.S. flag.
“It was really nice,” said Hufalar of the meet-and-greet event. “So many people came out and brought delicious food just to say hello to us. It showed the family culture that’s here.”
Hufalar started her medical career in the Philippines, and then worked in Saudi Arabia for about 11 years in various departments before she discovered that she enjoyed the variety of the emergency room.
“The work is not routine there,” Hufalar noted, smiling.
Last February, she moved to Florida and worked at a hospital in Gainesville before being reassigned to Winter Haven.
“What I’m enjoying here is the approach to team nursing. There’s so much support and you never feel like you’re alone. On my off days, I sometimes spend time with the other international nurses, and we cook together.”
The international nurses go through an extended hospital and clinical orientation before they start unit-specific training and a special preceptorship to ensure they are prepared to practice as BayCare nurses. The hospital’s Clinical Education team also plays an important role in supporting their transition. For example, in the Emergency Department, Darshana Hicks, the ED’s nursing professional development practitioner, works directly with each new nurse.
“I help make sure they are compliant with education and know what to expect when they do go onto the floor,” Hicks said. “We give them a multi-part assessment, and based on their scores, we can help fill a knowledge gap. It can take 2-3 weeks to complete.”
So far, six nurses are in departments from dialysis to the emergency department. Joining Phillips, Salamida and Hufalar are Kim Alvarez (Philippines) with the Cardiac Medical-Surgical Unit, Alfred Eclarinal (Philippines) with the Emergency Department and Minneh Wairimu Mburu (Kenya) with the Dialysis team.
“It’s been exciting to watch these nurses acclimate to our campus and to see that their enthusiasm for providing extraordinary care matches our dedication,” said Kristen Smith, chief nursing officer for the Polk Region. “We plan to continue adding nurses from this program throughout the year.”
Several more international nurses are tentatively scheduled to join the team throughout the year, with a goal of adding 50 nurses this year.
Winter Haven Hospital was founded in 1926, and has an outstanding reputation for superior, patient-centered care. Its mission statement is “to improve the health of the people we serve, by providing the highest quality and most effective care and services -- and to return value to the people in our communities.”