Understanding the Current Nursing Shortage: Causes and Possible Solutions

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“Nurses are the largest component of the healthcare workforce, according to the United States Government Accountability Office. They provide much of the care for hospital patients and deliver most of the nation’s long-term care.” Nurses play a crucial role in healthcare, making the current nursing shortage a major challenge for the entire healthcare industry.

What’s causing the nursing shortage? are among the current top causes of the current nursing shortage?

  • Limited Access to Education
  • An Aging Population
  • An Aging Workforce
  • Burnout Following COVID

According to a recent McKinsey survey, 22% of nurses indicate that they may leave their current direct patient care position within the next year. With a diminishing supply of nurses and an ever-increasing demand for patient care, health systems and other entities that employ nurses are actively working through challenges to develop new strategies that attract and retain skilled nurses. To end the nursing shortage, it is imperative to understand and address the underlying causes of the crisis.

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An Aging Population

The World Health Organization notes that by the year 2030, one in six people in the world will be age 60 or older. To that end, the U.S. Census Bureau notes that by the year 2030, every member of the baby-boom generation – over 70 million people – will be age 65 or older.

An aging population creates an increase in demand for healthcare. Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights a challenge for healthcare providers in caring for aging populations. The CDC states that 19% of people over the age of 55 have three or more chronic conditions. With people living longer lives, the aging population greatly contributes to the demand for qualified healthcare professionals, especially nurses.

Today, and looking into the future, more patients require acute and chronic care management. With longer lifespans, many individuals living with chronic conditions and comorbidities will require long-term care from skilled and qualified nurses.

Aging Workforce: Nurses Nearing Retirement

Not only is an aging population contributing to the nursing shortage, but an aging workforce is a significant factor as well. A significant percentage of the population is nearing retirement and that includes those working in healthcare. The median age of registered nurses is 52, according to a 2020 article published by The Journal of Nursing Regulation. With a median age of over 50, within the next decade, many nurses will exit the workforce, and there will be a surge in demand for nurses to replace those leaving the profession.

Additionally, as nurses leave the profession, many schools find themselves in need of capable teachers. Without appropriate staffing levels, academic facilities are struggling to provide the education and training required to properly prepare new nurses entering the workforce.

Burnout and Increased Turnover Among Nurses

While age is a factor considered in the current nurse exodus, the COVID-19 pandemic hastened the retirement of many nurses across the country due in large part to stress and burnout. Nursing is difficult both physically and mentally, and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated these issues. Stress, causing a toll on the mental health of nurses, and overall burnout among nurses are major contributing factors to nurses choosing to leave staff positions in favor of contract/travel nursing.

According to a poll published by Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation, “roughly three in 10 healthcare workers have weighed leaving their profession. More than half are burned out. And about six in 10 say stress from the pandemic has harmed their mental health.” A significant shortage of nursing professionals results in a higher patient-to-nurse ratio.

A heavier patient load combined with other administrative duties and other daily tasks leads nurses to burn out more quickly.

What is Being Done About the Shortage?

Fixing the nursing shortage is neither simple nor straightforward and includes addressing multiple factors. To curtail the shortage, changes ranging from additional educational resources to healthcare systems creating conditions that drastically reduce turnover are necessary.

Currently, federal and state governments are working to address the shortage and attract and retain nurses. The CARES Act provided additional funding and support for underserved areas through training and educational financial aid for nurses working in areas with a critical shortage as identified by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

Beyond the CARES Act, the government is providing financial assistance to those considering nursing school. Currently, the Nursing Education Loan Repayment Program repays up to 85% of educational loans for nurses who work in qualifying facilities and areas with a critical shortage of nurses.

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How Healthcare Systems Can Move Forward

The solutions to end the nursing shortage are complex. The pandemic challenged the healthcare industry to confront the resultant shortcomings, especially where workforce management is concerned. Through understanding the shortage and the conditions that caused it, health systems will be able to move forward with a realistic plan that improves working conditions for nurses while making education and training more accessible.

If healthcare systems want nurses to remain in the profession and attract new nurses, facilities must find new ways of managing their workforce. One way to do so is to embrace emerging technologies. The pandemic saw record numbers of telehealth visits, but there are other technologies available that can reduce the strain on nursing staff. Artificial intelligence was used pre-pandemic in the form of nursing robots. Diligent Robotics, an Austin-based company, designed Moxi, a robot developed to perform duties for nurses that require high levels of precision but not patient interaction. Andrea Thomaz, founder of Digital Robotics, says, “We’re We’re helping them augment their staff.” By using available technology to automate tasks that do not require patient interaction, nurses can spend more time dedicated to direct patient care duties.

Another way healthcare agencies are changing their workforce management is by embracing the gig economy. Giving nurses the flexibility and freedom to choose which shifts they work and how often they work overtime can help nurses manage their well-being and mental health. Flexible scheduling and a better work/life balance are among the top requests from nurses feeling stressed and burned out.

The nursing shortage is predicted to last through 2030, making it crucial for healthcare systems to adopt new methods of workforce management. An increase in the accessibility of education, particularly at the graduate level, as well as embracing new technologies that provide support for nurses will be critical in maintaining a strong workforce and retaining qualified candidates.