Mars may need women but Cone Health needs nurses.

Cone Health CEO Terry Aiken spoke on the current difficulty of finding and hiring nurses to work in the system at a Thursday, Nov. 29 meeting of area economic development officials.

He said the nursing shortage was being felt across the country but North Carolina is getting hit worse than other states in that regard.

“It’s quite a battleground out there for nursing talent right now,” Aiken said.

According to Aiken, some competing health systems in North Carolina are now offering $20,000 signing bonuses to attract nurses. That further decreases the pool of nurses available to the Cone system.

“That certainly is too dear for Cone Health,” he said. “We can’t play at that level, but it is going on.”

He said that – especially when it comes to millennials fresh out of college with large student loans – those bonuses can be very enticing.

“You may be somewhere, a year or two out of school and someone dangles 20 grand in front of you – it’s tough to turn down,” he said.

He added that North Carolina seems to be getting hit harder than others and that it is likely to get worse in the coming years.

“I think we are all feeling the nursing shortage, which is projected – unfortunately for North Carolina in particular – to get particularly acute in the next three to five years,” Aiken said.

One way Cone Health is addressing the issue is by attempting to get the entire medical staff to “work smarter and work more efficiently.” Aiken said that means making sure all of the health professionals in the system are “practicing at the top of their license.” For instance, the system doesn’t want doctors doing tasks that could be handled by physicians’ assistants.

That strategy, he said, also helps address the constant shortage of doctors.

“We’re not gonna solve the access problem if it’s all about finding and recruiting new doctors – there just aren’t enough,” Aiken said.