Nurses have never been in higher demand: In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, hospitals, nursing homes, home-care agencies, outpatient facilities and nursing schools are all scrambling for talent.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an annual average of about 194,500 job openings for registered nurses over the next decade. Demand has gotten so high that in September, the American Nurses Association urged the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to declare the nurse staffing shortage a national crisis.
With the median age of RNs reaching 52 in 2020, retirements have been a big contributor to the nursing shortage. By the end of 2022 alone, the ANA estimates that more than 500,000 RNs will have left the workforce. Without a doubt, the pandemic’s job stress is also driving many to the exits.
“Nursing is the most physically, emotionally and mentally demanding profession that there is,” said Maureen White, Northwell Health’s chief nurse executive. “The pandemic highlighted how important the work is that nurses do, and it also exacerbated how much we endure on a daily basis.”
An aging population may be the biggest driver behind the need for nurses. Americans are living longer with a host of medical problems as they age. More nurses are needed to educate and care for patients with chronic conditions requiring higher-skilled care – Alzheimer’s disease, strokes and other debilitating conditions that require long-term rehabilitation and post-hospitalization follow-ups.
As hospitals and health systems continue to expand their outpatient and home-care capabilities, more nurses are also needed for in-home visits. They’re also in demand at urgent-care facilities, cancer centers (especially those administering chemotherapy), outpatient surgery centers and other ambulatory facilities.
If there’s a silver lining to the COVID pandemic, it’s that it has fueled greater interest in nursing careers. According to a recent report by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, enrollment in the nation’s bachelor’s-level nursing programs increased 5.6 percent in 2020, despite initial concerns that the pandemic might diminish interest in nursing careers.
However, the same report found that more than 80,000 qualified applicants were turned away from nursing schools primarily because of shortages of clinical sites and faculty and other resource constraints.
Considering the overwhelming demand for RN jobs that paid a median salary of $75,330 in 2020, nursing schools should be more innovative and flexible in the curricula they offer, which according to White would increase the pipeline of both nurse educators and incoming talent.
“As a group, [undergraduate and graduate nursing schools] have not embraced change so readily,” the chief nurse executive noted.
It typically takes two to three years to earn an associate’s degree in nursing, four years to get a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing and another two years for a master’s degree. While it’s not ideal, White believes schools should offer more online learning opportunities and reduce the time it takes to graduate new nurses. This would also enable schools to accept more students, she says, and recruit more instructors.
Recognizing that it’s often difficult to arrange for nurses-in-training to get clinical rotations, White also encourages schools to increase their use of medical simulations to help students meet their clinical requirements.
Besides increasing interest in nursing careers, the pandemic has also forced healthcare providers to consider new care models and test innovative treatment methods, which are helping to lighten the workload of nurses and other clinicians.
For instance, digital technologies – and the reluctance of many people to seek in-person care because of COVID concerns – have led to unprecedented spikes in telehealth visits, which are now more eligible for insurance reimbursements than ever before.
Technology companies, once notorious for off-the-shelf products that healthcare providers had to retrofit to meet their purposes, are now offering customized solutions that better meet the needs of specific clinicians and patients. Among the operational efficiency advances: wearable devices that automatically track and upload patient information and a growing use of artificial intelligence to analyze patient data, helping clinicians flag patients at the highest risk for potential problems.
While all of these technologies provide nurses and other clinicians with critical tools for improving patient care, they don’t address the physical demands of a job that regularly involves moving patients and heavy equipment and often leads to workplace injuries.
Even more than doctors, in many cases, nurses bear the ultimate responsibility for ensuring high-quality care is delivered and the growing volume of regulatory paperwork is completed – meaning patients rely on nurses for their intellect, judgment and experience, in addition to their brawn.
While the healthcare world needs to “offload some of the physical work at the bedside,” according to White – “healthcare is a team sport,” she noted – nurses know what they sign up for, whether it’s a holiday season highlighted by another COVID surge or just another day in the ER.
“Nurses take their jobs very seriously,” White said. “There’s a lot of stress having patients’ lives in our hands.”
Terry Lynam is a communications consultant and former senior vice president/chief public relations officer for Northwell Health.