CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO - Cascade Health nurse Karen Knowlton fills out an information card among vaccine materials in the early days of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the word of 2022 just may be “shortage.” Labor shortages, supply shortages, consumer goods shortages, and most recently, infant formula shortages.

Another shortage may not be grabbing as many headlines, but it is no less critical: a national, state, and local shortage of nurses.

Business leaders attending a recent Springfield Chamber of Commerce State of Business virtual event received insights into this growing problem by Marie Stehmer, Senior Director of Human Resources at PeaceHealth. 

“Today, the U.S. needs 1.1 million new nurses,” she told the group at the Chamber’s annual event. “And right now, some 500,000 nurses are set to retire by the end of 2022.”

National numbers support this alarming trend in our healthcare system. According to a recent statement from the American Nurses Association: 

“A shortage of registered nurses is projected to spread across the country through 2030 and is expected to be most intense in the South and the West. Furthermore, more jobs will be available in nursing in 2022 than in any other profession. This shortage will have a significant impact on patient care.”

Stehmer of PeaceHealth points to severe burnout during the height of Covid as a fundamental reason for the nursing shortage.

“In survey after survey, we find that three out of 10 healthcare workers are considering leaving the profession entirely, and a leading cause cited is negative mental health effects from the pandemic,” she said.

Matt Calzia, BSN, a Nurse Practice Consultant with the Oregon Nurses Association, agrees that Covid has placed a burden on nursing, but he also cites systemic issues that have plagued the profession for years.

“It’s really been a brewing shortage for some time,” he said. “We’ve known for a long time that more nurses were leaving the profession than entering and that overall working conditions have led to that problem.”

Calzia cites long hours and overburdened nurses due to a lack of qualified people coming into the healthcare workforce as the main reasons for those difficult working conditions and low morale. Exacerbating the problem is that the average age of a nurse in America today is 50, which means that many more nurses are closer to retirement than beginning their career.

“The solution is to greatly increase the enrollment in nursing schools, and that needs both government and industry intervention to help subsidize the cost and to raise pay for entry-level nursing.”

Stehmer wholeheartedly agrees with this pipeline issue and cites the fact that 2020 and ’21 saw a huge disruption of new nurses obtaining degrees and entering the field due to the inherent problems of Covid. “With hospitals all but shut down for teaching, so many nursing students were never able to get the clinical experience they needed to finish their degree.”

To their credit, PeaceHealth, among many other institutions, is working on solutions to help reverse the tide of a nursing exodus. The organization is extending its recruiting reach in order to attract nurses from out of state. This includes a full-court press on schools outside of Oregon to try to bring in more nurses from California, the Midwest, and the South. 

They are also offering signing bonuses to new recruits and starting to go into local and regional high schools to try to set students on a path toward nursing as a career.

“At PeaceHealth Riverbend, we have a staff person 100 percent dedicated to reaching out to high school students and getting them interested in nursing,” Stehmer said.

Another effort on behalf of the organization is to strengthen their partnership with Lane Community College (LCC). The gold standard for a qualified nurse is one with a bachelor’s degree, but by working with LCC, PeaceHealth is hoping to ramp up the pathway from community college to four-year institution in order to create more nurses for the profession.

Calzia of the state nurses association concurs. 

“Our association and our members are doing so much more at the high school and community college level to really establish a more robust funnel of nurses entering the profession. It won’t solve the immediate problem, but everyone hopes that we can create a new generation of nurses to replace those who are leaving or retiring.”

In talking with these experts, it seems apparent that nursing suffers from a perfect storm of underappreciation combined with a lack of awareness from the public. Like teachers, truck drivers, or police officers – or a host of other jobs – as a society we simply expect them to be there when they’re needed. It’s only when we start to see the shortages firsthand that we take notice of their plight. 

With nurses, we usually only interact with them when we are having a terrible day. But during the other 364 days a year, we can easily forget that their profession is suffering greatly. Unless this trend is reversed, the U.S. could be in for a terrible day of reckoning in the near future. Imagine if the current nurse shortage snowballs and collides with another national or global pandemic? 

Hopefully, national, state, and local efforts to build up the profession beginning at the high school and community college level will help alleviate the problem before it becomes catastrophic.

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