For many Americans, their first personal experience of being a hospital patient quickly becomes a crash course in the importance and value of having a skilled and dedicated bedside nurse. At a higher level, this points to the importance of a sufficient nursing staff which impacts the entire workflow of the hospital. Without sufficient bedside nurses, patients in the Emergency Room and Intensive Care Units cannot be moved to the floors, resulting in longer waiting times for care for those newly arriving. Beds that cannot be staffed are beds that do not exist for all practical purposes. Unfortunately, a shortage of nurses has long been a problem for hospitals across the United States. The coronavirus pandemic has brought this challenge to an entirely new level, resulting in a request by the American Nurses Association that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declare the current nursing staffing shortage a national crisis.
Nationwide, more than 1200 nurses have perished from COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, their jobs were made more dangerous by a shortage of personal protective equipment, but they persevered, even volunteering to relocate in hospitals to service areas with higher COVID-19 infection levels. As COVID-19 infections have increased, especially among younger, unvaccinated patients, more nurses are feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, dismayed by the amount of misinformation in the community, and distressed when they are unable to meet their own standards of care because of patient overload. Many are retiring early or shifting to less stressful career pathways outside of hospitals. This problem appears even more dire in rural communities, which suffer from an aging workforce and older patient populations with chronic diseases, lower nurse salaries, and a more intense workload. Rural hospitals may be more likely to lose nurses to large urban healthcare systems that can pay travel nurses much higher salaries and large signing bonuses, although even the large nurse recruitment agencies cannot fill all of the positions they currently have to offer.
As challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, there are other factors that are also contributing to the current nursing shortage and well into the future. The large number of nurses in the baby boomer generation, those nurses born between 1946 and 1964, is a major concern. By 2029, it is projected that 71 million Americans will be 65 or older, with a longer lifespan and multiple chronic health conditions. One third of the nation’s nurses are themselves baby boomers and 640,000 are nearing retirement age. Approximately 170,000 nurses are entering the work force each year but the American Association of Colleges of Nursing claims that many qualified applicants to nursing schools are rejected because of a lack of teaching staff.