THE NURSING SHORTAGE NEEDS NEW SOLUTIONS
News reports during our times with COVID point to a worsening of a nursing shortage. Clearly, the epidemic has made the shortage worse because of a host of problems, not the least of which is burnout. But the nursing shortage has been with us, and the rest of the world, for a very long time and there are no signs of it letting up anytime soon.
When I was in nursing school in the late 1970’s we were told there would always be a job for us and that the demand for nurses was greater than it had ever been. Things have not changed much in all these years and politicians, nursing leaders and policymakers have been pointing to the problem for just as long. The situation never seems to get any better.
The causes for the shortage are complex and there is no one simple solution to make things better and magically find a fix that will open the flood gates of new nursing graduates eager to fill all the empty slots. According to a recent article on Medscape.com, “Workforce issues existed well before the pandemic, explained Ernest Grant, PhD, RN, current president of the American Nurses Association. “Insufficient pay, opportunities and burnout have been problems for a long time. But now it’s gotten worse. Nurses are overworked and underpaid, and there’s no relief in sight, in addition to other work-related issues.”
It may be an unfair comparison because doctors spend more time in school than nurses, but the power and prestige differences between the two professions have always been difficult for nurses. There has been a leveling of the field to some degree over the past few decades and that has helped nurses feel better about their jobs.
Another major issue has always been the institutional type of servitude that has always existed in hospitals. Unionized nurses have it a little better than non-unionized nurses, but nurses who work in hospitals and larger institutions can often feel as though they are treated as expendable commodities. They often feel disrespected by superiors and feel torn between their devotion for caring and their need to pay the bills.
A new twist on the nursing shortage is the prevalence of travel nurses. They are hired by places that need nurses and the travelers are paid a higher salary than the nurses who live and work in the community they are visiting for a while. The travelers also get a housing stipend and often other perks.
How do you think that makes the nurses who work next to them feel?
It is also interesting to note that the nursing shortage is an international problem as pointed out on Medscape.com, “The nursing shortage is a global one, well-recognized before the pandemic and worsening this year. In late 2020, the global nursing workforce was estimated at 27.9 million but with an estimated global shortfall of 5.9 million nurses, according to the International Council of Nurses brief on the global nursing shortage and nurse retention. About 89% of these nurse shortages were concentrated in low- and lower-middle countries, with huge gaps in countries, the brief stated. Of the national nursing associations surveyed, 20% reported an increase in the number of nurses leaving the profession as a result of the pandemic.”
Most of the solutions to the nursing shortage problem have to do with educational loan forgiveness. That helps. Let me offer some other possible actions that might help. If a hospital was willing to take a chance they could look at the amount of money they spend on traveling nurses, often in the millions of dollars. They could end their contract for traveling nurses and take this money and use it to provide a big pay raise to all their nurses as well as new hires. It would be a risky move, but if it worked other hospitals might try it.
Of course, there need to be enough nurses looking for jobs to fill those slots and that is part of the problem because not enough new graduates are being produced. A lack of enough nursing educators is cited. Part of the solution to that problem would be to require some nursing faculty to only have bachelor degrees and a specified number of years of experience to teach in certain areas.
There are new ways to look at the nursing shortage. We will probably never have enough nurses, but we should try to look for solutions that will help a little.