Is There a Solution to the Nursing Shortage?
When my now astute high schooler was just a curious toddler, he choked on a dried piece of baby breath. I can’t tell you today what the doctor’s name was or even if they were male or female, but I will never forget the red-headed nurse who was constantly at my side. It was she who explained to me what the quick surgery entailed in words I understood, and who saw us through that one night in the hospital.
Anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in a hospital will be attended to by a nurse. They are at the front line, assessing and triaging patients, taking histories, and running tests. Nurses are helping to diagnose and treat patients, change IVs, draw blood, and offer emotional support to patients and their families.
So what is going to happen now that the nursing shortage has reached crisis proportions?
The demand for nurses has been growing steadily, and has now reached a point where it is larger than the supply. It is estimated that 1.2 million empty slots for nurses will emerge over the next 7 years according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, creating a shortage that will be double what the US medical industry saw in the mid 1960’s when Medicare and Medicaid were first introduced.
The 3 million nurses currently at work in the United States are the largest segment of employees in the health care industry, yet that number is still not enough to take care of the multitude of patients in need of quality care each day. And the situation is destined to become worse if it is not addressed now.
What is Driving the Nursing Crisis?
There are more Americans that are aged 65 and older right now than at any time in the history of the country, and this number continues to rise. By 2030 the number of senior citizens is expected to increase by 75%. This means that in just 15 years, one out of every five Americans will be over 65. This aging population is placing a demand for nurses in numbers that have never been seen before.
Nurses are also getting older too, and almost a third of the current workforce will be reaching retirement age in the next 15 years. So not only do we need to bring in an influx of new nurses to meet the demands of the growing elderly community, we need to replace the million or so nurses who are getting ready to join them in retirement.
Is it that No One Wants to Be a Nurse?
Contrary to what many may believe, the problem is not that no one wants to be a nurse, the problem seems to be that there are not enough qualified schools available to churn them out as quickly as needed. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing reports that close to 80,000 qualified applicants had to be turned away from nursing programs due to an insufficient amount of teaching resources.
There are plenty of individuals out there who are willing to take on the nursing challenge, but not enough places available where they can be sufficiently trained.
Not only is entry into nursing school an issue, so is finding a facility where practical experience can be gained. This is creating a bottleneck of willing care givers who are unable to see their training through to the end.
How Can Current Nurses Help?
Part of the problem arises from the experience – or inexperience – gap. Health care facilities would obviously prefer to hire nurses who have been working for years, but need to be willing to take on part of the responsibility in giving new nurses a positive environment to continue learning in. Experienced nurses can act as mentors, showing the freshly graduated the ropes and helping them to gain the clinical knowledge that only comes from working directly with patients, doctors, and other medical professionals.
The risk to the health and safety of patients rises as the percentage of nurses continues to fall. Closing medical facilities cannot be a viable option with this ever increasing patient load, yet overworking nurses is equally as dangerous. Research has linked nursing shortages to higher rates of hospital readmission and even patient mortality, as the quality of care nurses are able to provide takes a dramatic downturn when they are stretched too thin.
The nursing shortage crisis needs to be addressed by Washington, and funding allocated that would give nursing schools and other educational institutions an incentive to increase their nursing programs. There is no doubt that the need for nurses is going to continue to rise, and the only way to ensure that patient care is not going to be compromised is by taking steps right now to get new nurses graduated and out into the field.