How To Solve the Nursing Shortage

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The United States is facing a severe nurse shortage.

This crisis has left hospitals struggling to find enough nurses to meet the demands of their patients.

The issue is complex, and the solution is not straightforward. However, it is important to understand what is causing the nursing shortage, when it started, and what can be done to improve it.

The top three takeaways are:

  1. The nursing shortage began long before COVID-19.
  2. The nursing shortage was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. Resolving the nursing shortage will require a multi-faceted approach.

Table of Contents:

  1. When did the nursing shortage begin?
  2. The pandemic worsened an existing problem.
  3. So what can we do about the nursing shortage?

When did the nursing shortage begin?

We've been dealing with shortages before the pandemic

Before 2020, the healthcare industry was already grappling with nursing shortages due to several factors.

Aging Population and Aging Workforce

The aging baby boomer generation is leading to a surge in the need for healthcare services. This demographic shift is putting increased demand on the healthcare system, including a higher need for nursing care.

At the same time, many experienced registered nurses who are part of the boomer generation are retiring, further exacerbating the shortage. As older nurses reach retirement age, there are not enough new nurses entering the profession to fill these vacancies. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that many nurses tend to retire early due to the physical and emotional demands of the job.

This dual effect of the aging population has created a widening gap between the number of available nursing professionals and the burgeoning demand for their services.

Rural Communities Face Different Challenges

Rural communities face uniquely challenging circumstances in the face of the nurse staffing shortage.

These areas often struggle to attract and retain healthcare professionals due to a lack of amenities, lower pay scales, and isolation from urban centers. Without a sufficient number of registered nurses, rural healthcare facilities can't provide the breadth of services necessary for comprehensive patient care, leading to poorer health outcomes.

This situation is further compounded by the fact that rural populations tend to be older, with a higher prevalence of chronic illnesses, increasing the demand for nursing care. The nursing shortage strikes rural communities disproportionately hard, creating a healthcare disparity.

Insufficient Nursing Educators and Training Resources

A significant yet often overlooked contributor to the shortage facing the nursing workforce is the lack of nursing educators, forcing lower nursing school enrollment. Across many nursing schools in the United States, there are simply not enough faculty members to educate and train the next generation of registered nurses.

According to a report by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, nursing schools turned away 91,938 qualified applications in 2021-2022 due to insufficient resources such as faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, clinical preceptors, and budget constraints.

This lack of resources affects not only the quantity but also the quality of nurses being trained. Ensuring adequate resources for nurse training is critical to addressing the nursing shortage and leading to better patient outcomes.

Related Reading: Top 3 Healthcare Recruitment Challenges in 2023 and Beyond

Economic Downturns

Economic downturns exacerbate the existing nursing shortage in several ways. During periods of economic instability, healthcare organizations often face budget cuts, which may result in frozen hiring, reduced staff hours, and even layoffs.

With limited resources, these organizations find it challenging to invest in the recruitment, training, and retention of nurses, worsening the shortage.

Economic downturns can also deter potential nursing candidates from pursuing registered nurse jobs due to uncertain employment prospects and wage stagnation. Consequently, the pipeline of new registered nurses entering the workforce dwindles, amplifying the nursing shortage.

Lack of Competitive Wages

An essential factor contributing to the nursing shortage is the lack of competitive wages for nurses. Despite the high levels of responsibility and the intensive nature of the work, many nurses are not adequately compensated for their vital role in healthcare.

This wage discrepancy can deter potential entrants from joining the nursing profession, while also pushing existing nurses to seek higher-paying opportunities outside of direct patient care.

Non-competitive wages can contribute to burnout, as nurses may need to work longer hours or take on additional shifts to meet their financial needs. Addressing wage disparities is integral to attracting and retaining a robust nursing workforce, and consequently, alleviating the nursing shortage.

The Pandemic Worsened an Existing Problem

Before COVID-19, nursing shortages occurred due to economic downturns, waves of retiring nurses, and increased healthcare demand.

However, the pandemic has brought the issue to the forefront.

Related Reading: Healthcare Workforce Challenges

Demand for RNs surged during COVID-19, and as the pandemic hit in 2020, nurses were already under strain. The COVID-19 pandemic significantly amplified the burnout experienced by nurses due to several factors:

Burnout is on the Rise

  • Increased Workload and Long Hours: As COVID-19 cases surged, nurses were required to work extra shifts, often at short notice, and manage higher patient loads, including critically ill patients.

    The complexity and intensity of care required by COVID-19 patients significantly added to their workload and stress levels. The relentless nature of the pandemic, with little respite or downtime, has led to a heightened state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion among nurses, amplifying burnout rates.

  • Emotional Stress: Nurses have been on the frontlines of the pandemic, dealing with high mortality rates, suffering, and fear while also grappling with their own concerns about personal safety and potentially infecting their families.

    They've had to make difficult decisions due to resource constraints and have also endured the emotional burden of facilitating remote communication between patients and their families due to visitation restrictions.

    In many cases, nurses are the last comforting presence for patients in their final moments. This constant exposure to trauma, grief, and loss, coupled with the ongoing pressure and demands of the pandemic, has led to heightened emotional stress, leading to burnout and causing many to question their ability to continue in the profession.

  • Inadequate Resources: Insufficient staffing, often a result of budget constraints, forces nurses to work long hours and manage higher patient loads, increasing their stress levels and workload.

    The lack of necessary medical supplies and equipment imposes more strain, as nurses struggle to provide effective care under these conditions. This chronic stress, with little opportunity for recovery, leads to physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.

  • Risk of Infection: Due to their frontline role in patient care, nurses face a heightened risk of exposure to the virus, a reality that has added a layer of fear and anxiety to their already demanding work environment.

    Despite wearing protective gear, the possibility of contracting the virus and spreading it to their families and loved ones has been a constant concern.

  • Lack of Support: Lack of support, both at the organizational and societal level, has further fueled the burnout crisis among nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Nurses often found themselves navigating the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic with insufficient institutional support—be it in terms of lack of adequate staffing, inconsistent communication, or absence of necessary mental health resources.

    This lack of tangible and psychological support has contributed to feelings of isolation and helplessness among nurses, intensifying burnout and contributing to the ongoing nursing shortage.

To address these issues, healthcare organizations implemented measures such as providing mental health support, ensuring adequate rest periods, and improving communication within teams. However, the long-term impact of the pandemic on nurse burnout remains a significant concern.

There's a lot to tackle here

The nursing shortage is a multifaceted issue caused by a combination of factors. While the causes contributing to the nursing shortage are complex and interconnected, they are not insurmountable.

Let's delve into potential solutions that can be implemented to mitigate the nursing shortage, including increasing nursing education capacity, improving workplace conditions, reducing burnout, and enhancing support for existing nursing personnel.

So what can we do about the nursing shortage?

To address the lack of nurses in the U.S., we need to address complex issues at the root of the shortage.

Related Reading: How Employers Can Adapt to a Tight Talent Marketplace in Healthcare

Here are the top strategies we can implement in the United States to attract more nurses:

  • Improving Working Conditions: A supportive and healthy work environment can significantly reduce stress, prevent burnout, and elevate job satisfaction among nurses, thereby fostering retention and attracting more individuals to the profession.

    Measures could include ensuring adequate staffing levels to manage workload, providing necessary medical supplies and equipment, and implementing efficient work processes to reduce excessive administrative tasks.

    Additionally, establishing a culture of respect and value for nurses, providing opportunities for professional growth, and offering tangible support such as mental health resources are crucial.

  • Competitive Compensation: Ensuring fair and attractive remuneration reflects the value and importance of the nursing profession and can be a powerful incentive to retain existing staff and attract new talent to the field.

    Aside from competitive salary structures, comprehensive benefits packages, including health insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, and educational support programs, also play an essential role in overall compensation.

  • Proactive Talent Management and Retirement Planning: By anticipating the retirement of senior nurses and planning ahead, healthcare organizations can ensure a smooth transition and continuity of care. Creating mentorship programs where experienced nurses can pass on their invaluable knowledge and skills to younger nurses can also help preserve institutional knowledge.
  • Legislative Support: Laws and regulations that empower nurses to practice to the full extent of their education and licensure can help to maximally utilize the existing nursing workforce.

    Legislative bodies can introduce nurse staffing mandates, which require specific nurse-to-patient ratios, ensuring adequate staffing levels that can manage workloads, reduce nurse burnout, and improve patient care quality.

    Such mandates have been implemented in states like California, which have seen a notable increase in patient satisfaction and nurse retention rates.

  • Education Opportunities: Broadening access to nursing programs, such as by offering more scholarships to prospective students, can attract a diverse population of individuals to the nursing profession.

    Distance learning nursing programs and online courses can provide flexible learning options for those who may have other responsibilities, such as work or family commitments, which may expand the pool of potential nursing students.

    Furthermore, developing bridge programs that allow licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and associate degree nurses (ADNs) to progress to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) can help to advance their careers and prepare them for broader nursing roles.

  • Lift the Green Card Freeze: This policy adjustment would enable more international nursing professionals to immigrate to the United States and apply their skills and expertise in our healthcare system.

    The global pool of nursing talent is a largely untapped resource that could be critical in addressing the current shortage.

    By welcoming these qualified individuals, we would not only enrich the diversity of our nursing workforce but also boost the number of healthcare workers available to provide quality care.

  • Promote the Nursing Profession: By raising public awareness about the vital role of nurses in healthcare and showcasing the diverse career opportunities within nursing, we can attract more individuals to this rewarding field.

    This involves dispelling misconceptions about the profession, celebrating nursing achievements, and emphasizing the interpersonal and problem-solving skills that nurses utilize daily.

    Media campaigns, school presentations, job fairs, and nursing ambassadors can play a key role in this promotional effort.

    Furthermore, highlighting the pathways for advancement and the potential for lifelong learning and specialization within nursing can draw more people into the profession.

Nurses need a break

The nursing shortage is a complex issue that requires attention and action from healthcare recruiters, healthcare human resources, and healthcare staffing professionals.

Building an adequate supply of nurses, creating safe, empowering, healthy work environments, public policy supporting quality healthcare, laws/regulations that enable nurses to practice at the full extent of their education and licensure are just a few ways to address the shortage.

By implementing solutions to these challenges, we can work towards improving the nursing shortage and provide better care for our communities.

PreCheck is here to help you hire.

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