A confluence of factors is causing the shortage of nurses. Among them are declining nursing school enrollments (down 17% since 1995), an aging workforce nearing retirement, decreases in relative earnings (the average elementary school teacher earns $13,600 more than the average RN), dissatisfaction with work conditions (largely brought on by managed care), and increasing alternative employment opportunities for women.

The renewable energy jobs industry alone is attracting around 8% of today’s entire workforce, with a considerable part of it coming from the health sector. With the demand for “green jobs” (no small thanks to global warming) expected to rise even more, you could bet the number of nurses will continue to dwindle.

As nurses are retiring or leaving the profession for other reasons, the baby boomers, 78 million of them, are growing older, developing chronic diseases, and requiring hospitalizations. The number of Americans aged 65 years and older will double between now and 2030. The combination of more patients with more acute, complex disorders, greater reliance on high-tech modalities, and significantly fewer nurses presents a troubling scenario. We know that the inadequate nurse staffing we have now is compromising patient care and contributing to our current epidemic in medical errors. If, as predicted, the shortage grows worse, the implications for patient care are frightening. Numerous studies show that improved nurse staffing results in fewer complications, fewer adverse events, lower mortality, and shorter hospital stays. Major organizations like the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have recognized the link between medical errors and nurse staffing levels and have issued important recommendations for easing the crisis.

Even if nursing programs manage to attract more students, there is still a severe shortage of nurse faculty. In the 2000-2001 academic year, nursing schools turned away nearly 6,000 students because of a lack of faculty. The median age of nursing faculty is 51 years, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, meaning that just when the nursing shortage is reaching its peak, a large number of nurse educators will be retiring. PAs might help fill this gap by teaching courses in pathophysiology, health assessment, and physical diagnosis to nursing students. Those 15% of our colleagues who were nurses before becoming PAs may, in particular, have an interest in giving something back to their former profession.

Finding teachers is only part of the problem. Many nursing schools have closed because of lack of funding. President George W. Bush’s Nurse Reinvestment Act initially seemed to be a step in the right direction. The legislation creates grants to improve nurse education, practice, and retention. It provides loans to help recruit nursing school faculty, and it offers scholarships in exchange for working in areas of critical nurse shortage.

In Mr. Bush’s proposed FY 2004 budget, however, no money was allocated to address the dire shortage of nursing faculty as authorized in the Nurse Reinvestment Act. Furthermore, the 2004 budget slashes funding for Title VII programs of the Public Health Service Act, from $310.45 million last year to a mere $11 million this year. All programs that increase the number of primary care providers in rural and underserved areas were eliminated.

Share this post: | | Google+ | |