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Shortage of Nurses and Health Professionals

The Issue:

Even in a difficult economy, there continue to be serious shortages in health professions such as nursing, pharmacy, therapy and radiology. Estimates of the nursing shortage range from a Bureau of Labor Statistics projection that more than 1 million new and replacement nurses will be needed by 2016, to a more recent calculation that the shortfall will be closer to a quarter of a million RNs by 2025. But even the more conservative estimate describes a shortage that is twice as large as any the country has experienced since the 1960s.

Solving the nursing shortage requires a two-pronged strategy. First, we need to recruit more nurses. A recent report estimated that 30,000 additional nurses should be graduated annually to meet the nation's healthcare needs, an expansion of 30 percent over the current number of annual nurse graduates. But the reality is that an increasing number of qualified students are now being turned away from nursing programs. Nearly 50,000 qualified candidates were denied admission to nursing schools in 2008, in part because of a shortage of faculty to teach them. Nursing faculty must be recruited and retained, hospitals must be given incentives to serve as clinical training sites for nurses, and innovative educational methods must be adopted.

In addition to recruiting more nurses, we need to retain the nurses we have. A national survey sponsored by AFT Healthcare found one in five current nurses planned to leave the profession before retirement age largely because the job had become so stressful and difficult—usually because of short-staffing. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was reported that, once a nurse had been assigned four patients, each additional patient assigned was associated with a 23 percent increase in the likelihood of nurse burnout and a 15 percent increase in job dissatisfaction.

Other professions report shortages as well. In a recent national survey sponsored by AFT Healthcare, three-fourths of respiratory therapists reported a shortage of therapists in the area in which they live, including two-thirds who said the shortage was severe (33 percent). Among certified nurse assistants, 79 percent reported a shortage in their area, with 27 percent describing it as severe. Eighty-two percent of radiology technicians reported a shortage with 43 percent calling it severe. And as with nurses, other professionals point to staffing levels and stress as primary reasons for shortages.

The U.S. healthcare system is growing at a record rate, but without the personnel needed to staff the system adequately, the quality of care being delivered to our citizens is at risk.

Solutions:

Working conditions must be improved to retain current nurses. Evidence shows that limiting the number of patients that nurses are required to care for makes the job a lot more attractive. Applications for registered nurse licenses in California increased more than 60 percent in the three years following passage of the state's nurse-patient ratio law. Hi-Desert Hospital in Joshua Tree, Calif., went from a 50 percent vacancy rate to a 1 percent vacancy rate six months after establishing nurse-patient ratios of 1-to-4 on the day shift and 1-to-5 on the second shift.

In addition, the capacity of nursing schools must be increased. In 2005, leaders in the AFT Healthcare and AFT Higher Education divisions developed a series of recommendations on how to recruit and retain nurse faculty to educate larger numbers of student nurses and meet the increasing demand for services. These recommendations included developing and implementing updated and nontraditional methods of instruction to prepare future nursing instructors.

Source: THE NURSE SHORTAGE: PERSPECTIVES FROM CURRENT DIRECT CARE NURSES AND FORMER DIRECT CARE NURSES, AN OPINION RESEARCH STUDY CONDUCTED BY PETER D. HART RESEARCH ASSOCIATES ON BEHALF OF THE FEDERATION OF NURSES AND HEALTH PROFESSIONALS. APRIL 2001.

Resources:

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing has created and regularly updates one of the most comprehensive fact sheets available on the shortage of nurses: http://www.aacn.nche.edu/Media/FactSheets/NursingShortage.htm

The AFT Higher Education and AFT Healthcare divisions met several times in 2005 and produced a comprehensive series of recommendations on the steps necessary to recruit and retain nurse faculty. (AFT Recommendations Regarding Nursing Faculty Shortage.)

AFT Resolution Addressing The Healthcare Workforce Crisis—Recruitment and Retention of Nurses and Health ProfessionalsThe official policy of the AFT calls for, among other things, incentives that would increase the number of hospitals willing to serve as clinical sites for nurse education.